On “Black Watch”

I saw in the Washington Post yesterday that Black Watch is back, even though a few years ago they had completed umpteen “final performances ever!”   In its current version, written by Gregory Burke and directed by John Tiffany, it’s beginning a new national tour of the States at Sidney Harmon Hall in Washington, home of Michael Kahn’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.    It will be there until Feb. 6.  Thank heaven for small favors.   Go!

Several years back, John Gibson, then Artistic Director of Live Arts, in Charlottesville, VA, came home from his annual outing to the Fringe Theatre Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, raving about Black Watch, a kind of docudrama created and performed by the National Theatre of Scotland.   He called the play “the single most intense theatrical experience he had ever been exposed to,” no small compliment coming from John.  On its first American tour, Black Watch played in the Virginia Beach area, and John hired a bus to take many of his theatrical friends and Live Arts associates over for a performance.  They all came home raving about it.  Joan and I finally managed to see it on October 12, 2008, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, NY.   St. Ann’s is basically what it says it is: a big old warehouse sitting directly under the east end of the Brooklyn Bridge.   I don’t know how they’re doing it in the Sidney Harmon Hall now, but then the theatre was set up as an alley approximately 40 yards long; there were five rows of audiences on each of two sides, and between us, we watched the Iraq war take place.  I recorded my thoughts, and my comments at the time are repeated below:

Black Watch, created and performed by the National Theatre of Scotland

We did far more than “see” this play.  It is a loud assault on eyes, ears, bones and personal smugness, and smashingly successful on all fronts.  It uses everything available in the entire lexicon of theatre, including comedy, angst, irony, spectacle, realism, jarring blue language, expressionism, light, sound, music, dance, tight movement choreography, projection – all to “shock and awe” its audience.   Black Watch is less a “play” than an environmental, political and moral challenge.  It is a passionate polemic against the Iraq war, against war in general, against the politicians who justify it, and against the human nature that gets us into these messes in the first place.  In the end, we all choose to be its victims, and we are all made responsible.  No one is free of guilt or blame.

Big issues, big themes, and elaborate production skills.  And yet such a simple story, or basically group of stories.  The Black Watch is the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment, the oldest and most famous of the highland regiments, which was detailed to Iraq as part of the “allied” support of the American invasion.  Ironically, this is the same regiment which tours the world with their Pipes and Drums, the picture of  precision, beauty, civilization, perfect control and orderliness.  And this is the same regiment which played at John F. Kennedy’s funeral, at Jackie’s special request.   But Black Watch presents us with a very different image.   There are eleven men in this cast, but I would have sworn before I double-checked that there must have been at least forty, so rapidly do they move.   A mild-mannered naïve newspaper reporter goes into an Edinburgh bar to ask its pool-playing veteran regulars what it was like to fight in Iraq.  That’s the framework.  That’s apparently what the playwright did.  And what he got was a full exposure to the raw results from a very threatening group of hardened veterans.  All of the trite, oft-heard cliché’s of war and combat are trotted out again here, but the audience is not given the time to sit back comfortably as outsiders and judge any of the actions or morals of the soldiers.  Instead, the reality of life as a member of the idealized Scottish Blackwatch Regiment literally carves its way into the room, cutting through the surface of the pool table and emerging as two battle-hardened and camouflaged soldiers.  We’re soon in Iraq with the regiment, with all of its contradictions and political justifications, a part of the sweating and waiting, and infighting and tension, trying unsuccessfully to watch the battles and bombing raids with the same detachment and bemused point of view in which audiences watch old war movies.  With even less of a tangible reason to be there than the American troops who started it all, the futility of their lives, and the cynicism of their own “patriotism” is fully evident to them.  Yet they go on fighting, killing, dying, for no cause other than themselves and their friends.  Detachment is not possible here, not when forty yards of “real” soldiers constantly push their way into our consciousness, exhausting themselves in drill and battle, flying thru the air in slow motion having been blown to bits by an IUD.  Not when the vibrations and sound of the bombing raid pushes through the bones of our asses, as if to physically shake us out of our detached judgments and moralizing and justifications.   Not when a wonderfully theatrical sequence of instantaneous costume changes reminds us that this particular regiment has been more or less at an endless game of war since 1725, and that every generation felt its own sacrifices.  And certainly not with the heart-rending strain of a solo bagpipe.  It’s not possible to emerge from the theatre into the cool bright light of Brooklyn without horrific imagery and profanity and explosions and futility seared into our minds.  At least it wasn’t possible for me.  Nor could I stop up the tears as I watched this remarkable piece unfold, sometimes without knowing what specifically was making me cry.  So little time to think, only to absorb and respond.

This is a rare piece of theatre, in the widest sense of the word, that should be sought after and experienced.  Joan and I noticed a pair of young lads (maybe 11 and 14?) who had come with their parents, and couldn’t help but wonder if this experience could make such an impression in their minds as to give them pause when making decisions of war and peace.  I hope so.   If our grandchildren were of that age, we’d bring them, all the “fuck”s and “cunt”s be damned.  And there would be some long talks afterwards.”

Back to the present:  Black Watch could now have even more relevance to audiences, who every day read of the morass in Afghanistan, the potential for Pakistan to blow up in our faces, the continuing bombings as we prepare to leave a now “peaceful” Iraq, the violent drug wars in our neighboring Mexico, etc. etc.  Without a military draft in this country, which would at least make much more personal what it means to be at war, the American public is generally content to let it all happen under the radar, hoping for the best.  We’re “in the right,” after all, aren’t we?  And isn’t it worth the price of a few unfortunate soldiers’ lives, who after all, volunteered to go there?  And doesn’t war have inevitable consequences, that “can’t be helped,”  like our maimed and PTSD-afflicted sons/daughters, brothers/sisters, and husbands/mothers, desperately trying to reintegrate themselves into a society that has no idea what we have asked them to do in our names?

Black Watch does not take a stand:  It is neither pro- nor anti-war.  It is neither left nor right, Democratic nor Republican, British nor American.  It is a universal, human work of art that should cut through all the smugness and self-delusion that we submit to, and that allows it all to go on, … and on, and on.  It will go on and on unless and until we own it and change it.   Some patriotic rich soul should buy a ticket to this play for every senator and congressman on the Hill, both sides of the aisle, and for all the good folks at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue … and take attendance!

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