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Black Watch

The Real Schism of War

By Gregory Burke
National Theatre of Scotland, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Harmon Hall, Washington, D.C.
Tuesday, October 2, 2012, H-105&106 (center orchestra)

Directed by John Tiffany

Scottish solders with the red plumes in their berets kneel with rifles poised and what looks like car headlights shining from the back
Cammy (Ryan Fletcher) leads other members of Scotland's elite fighting force, the Black Watch, into action against Iraqi insurgents during a production of the National Theatre of Scotland's production of Black Watch, presented at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Harmon Hall in Washigton, D.C. Photo by Colin Mearns, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

War in all its bloody vulgarity gets an unvarnished presentation in Black Watch, Gregory Burke’s portrait of an elite Scottish regiment serving in Iraq. But it is a brief period of peace in the midst of that war that provides the play’s most powerful moment. And there are many powerful moments in this brilliant National Theatre of Scotland production, along with some funny moments, a few scary moments, and one intensely tragic moment. Such is war.

However, the wordless sequence called “Blueys” resonates most. Bluey is the term for airmail letters, and as each member of the regiment reads his letter, he lets it drop to the floor while he performs a sign language routine, whether signing the content of the letter or the content of his heart is unclear. Their motions, the music, and the spotlighting create a mood that moves us to turn inward, too. If we wrote those letters, what would they say? Are we worried about what is in those letters? Is one a Dear John note, perhaps, or news about a sister or uncle or home finances? An even deeper question for us is whether we wish we could be with these warriors at this moment to comfort them, or do we prefer to distance ourselves. We don’t get an easy answer to any of these questions. Each soldier finally picks up his letter and walks off and into the next scene, where the unit gleefully watches American air and fire power blasting a suspected insurgent stronghold to smithereens as if watching a Transformers movie or a porn flick.

Though the blueys scene is the only sequence that shows the Black Watch members in isolation, it is the most communal scene in the whole play as it reveals shared humanity among them and with us. These are the most private moments of men who exist in a regiment and live on the most exposed of all stages, war.

This scene is a thematic anchor for the play, especially as it draws us into their humanness when otherwise we might see them as merely rude, crude, poor, dumb Scots (who, to be fair, consider U.S. Marines rude, crude, poor, dumb Yanks). The framework for Black Watch is the surviving members of the unit recounting their experiences in Iraq for a playwright who wants to capture their stories for a theatrical presentation. This is, in fact, the genesis of the play itself, and to that end is an ingeniously apt device because, despite the many means the production uses to put us on the battlefield, we can never fully understand what went on in the hearts and minds of these men who experience war firsthand. “At first I didn’t want to do this,” says Cammy in the play’s opening lines. “I didn’t want to have to explain myself to people. See, I think people’s minds are usually made up about you if you were in the army.”

This metaphysical space is where Black Watch operates, between our assumptions and the soldiers’ realities. These Black Watch soldiers are incredibly realistic, too, as genuinely portrayed by Ryan Fletcher (Cammy), Richard Rankin (Granty), Adam McNamara (Rossco), Chris Starkie (Stewarty), Cameron Barnes (Macca), Gavin Jon Wright (Nabsy), Scott Fletcher (Kenzie), and Andrew Fraser (Fraz). Stephen McCole plays the Officer, and Robert Jack doubles as the Writer and the Sergeant.

The play is flush with subtle ironies, but they all draw from our subconscious rather than being spelled out in the script. The first irony is the playing space itself. Black Watch debuted at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival Fringe in a disused drill hall with a rectangular stage and the audience sitting on grandstands on either side. This layout is so vital that the production’s subsequent tours required locations that allow such a configuration. Warehouses are more apt for this than theaters, but the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harmon Hall—where Black Watch has now played three times—has the space to put a grandstand opposite the theater’s orchestra seating. We enter to the sounds of bagpipes and drums, and that stage layout then seems to be the setting for a military tattoo, the formal parade that puts the regiment’s pride and history on stirring public display. Instead of a parade, though, we are first set inside a pub where the Black Watch veterans meet with the naïve Writer. The next transition, from pub to Iraq, is eerie in its utter irony: two Black Watch soldiers emerging from a billiards table.

Such visual transitions are key to the blending of home front and war zone; for example, the billiards table serves later as the back end of “the wagon,” an armored transport. It’s also the key to presenting the psychological bridge of army reality and regimental pride, the “golden thread” across generations of Black Watch soldiers. Cammy presents the regimental history in a humorous montage that has the other actors undressing and dressing him in various historical uniforms as if ceremonially disassembling and assembling a cannon. The recruiting scene is not set in 2002 but in 1914, another war that lost any understanding of its purpose in the slog of trench warfare. The army’s pitch hasn't changed, either: glory, decent pay, see the world, and you’ll be home by Christmas. “If you can’t take a joke, don’t join the army” is a recurring joke in Black Watch.

And if you can take jokes, Black Watch is full of them, especially funny for anybody who has served in the military. The soldiers carry a blank piece of paper they merely wave at the Sergeant to keep him at bay. “If you check a piece of paper, then you might end up having to do something,” the experienced soldiers explain to a newbie. The soldiers riff on weapons (and how a missile can take out a donkey) and on women (and how they can turn their “heroism” into sexual encounters). Before the imbedded journalists arrive (cue jokes at the expense of us journalists), the Sergeant demands that the porn be removed because it would upset the locals. The Officer overrules him; he wants to show the locals that the Scots are fighting for the right to enjoy porn. In the frustration of having to wait for relief after an improvised explosive device has disabled one of the wagons, Cammy complains about the danger of being stranded on an open road. The Sergeant, in equal anxiety, cuts Cammy off. “I know about the road,” he yells: “Tell me something I don’t know.” Granty quietly offers that “Fraz is a pre-op transsexual.” Robert Jack’s Sergeant lets the audience’s laughter subside before he reiterates, “Something I don’t know.”

A joke about porn is the last line before a fatal suicide bomber’s attack. We know from the start that some members of the unit didn’t come home and some came home wounded. As we shift between the pub and Iraq, we start counting and comparing the characters. Those who are wounded emerge before our eyes, not in Iraq but in Scotland. And the dead? Well, in Iraq in their uniforms and talking in difficult-to-discern Scots, individual soldiers are hard to tell apart. Nor does it really matter; in the end, the dead are, literally, only numbers. Despite seeing the bombing’s impact played out right before our eyes in a brilliant bit of stagecraft, we, like Cammy, get beyond the deaths—shocking as they are—with all the disinterest we can muster.

The real suspense of this play is why the Black Watch members left the army, Cammy in particular even though he was nominated for promotion. We get an appropriately muddled answer in the end, but, similarly, we get mixed signals of why they joined in the first place, and why they re-upped for a subsequent tour in Iraq: to fight, they say, not for their government or Britain or Scotland but for their regiment, their company, their platoon, their section, their mates.

“It takes 300 years to build an army that’s admired and respected around the world,” says the Officer after Cammy turns down the promotion. “But it only takes three years pissing about in the desert in the biggest western foreign policy disaster ever to **** it up completely.” If all of this seems to make this an antiwar play to you, then you are concentrating on the wrong number in that statement. The disillusionment among the soldiers is not with the Black Watch or even the army; it’s in their own nation that abused their service, and their own people who took them for granted.

An almost equally powerful moment to the blueys scene is Black Watch's ending when, at last, we get that regimental parade we thought we’d see at the beginning. But as the parade speeds up, soldiers begin to falter. Their fellows try to help each other along, but more and more fall behind or fall down. Their dedication if not their discipline appears to disintegrate, we see their growing frustration, and our own frustration rises as we watch. It’s another moment when we want to reach out and help these soldiers; but we can’t. We are not them.

More than making any statement about war, Black Watch establishes in the most effective ways the inevitable divide between them and us, the 10 percent who have heeded the nation’s call and the 90 percent who, contrarily, may laud that call but not heed it. We as a nation need to first recognize that divide and extend the utmost respect to our well-trained, incredibly loyal warriors before we decide whether sending our sons and daughters and our husbands and wives off to war is worth the carnage—the carnage to the civilization caught up in the war but to our own warriors, too. Some of our soldiers will lose their lives and livelihoods; that's an accepted cost of war. It’s when they lose their faith in their nation that the rest of us cannot afford.

Eric Minton
October 12, 2012

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