“You’ve got to know what we’re fighting for, otherwise there’s no point…”
Returning to the Barbican after a highly acclaimed run in 2008, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch is in the midst of an international tour of UK and US cities with a brand new cast. Based on interviews conducted by playwright Gregory Burke with former soldiers who served in the recent conflict in Iraq, the show examines what it is to be a soldier in the modern age and what comes after. As we shift between the pool room back in Fife where they’re being interviewed by a journalist and the war zone with its armoured vehicles, makeshift shacks and lookout points, the complex truth of delivering modern warfare is exposed. And though it is set right in the middle of the war on terror, it studiously avoids moralising or coming down on one side or the other, allowing reasoned arguments on both sides.
Creatively, it combines several elements to create a piece of visceral physical theatre that lingers in the memory and is clearly one of the main reasons for its continuing success: Gareth Fry’s ear-splitting sounds never let us forget the constant presence of danger in the field; Davey Anderson’s use of music allows for a reflective melancholy to be interspersed amongst scenes and Steven Hoggett’s stylised movement provides a striking beauty whether to rituals, battles, even the changing of seats in a pub, using the reconfigured space of the Barbican’s main theatre most effectively.
This is truly an ensemble show and this company, including a stage debut, are excellently attuned to each other in a way that really captures and holds the attention throughout. In the more fleshed-out roles, Jack Lowden’s disillusioned Cammy and Chris Starkie’s tightly-wound and traumatised Stewarty are both superb and I liked Ian Pirie’s eloquent and dedicated Officer, fierce in his loyalty to the armed forces. But there is no doubting the camaraderie between all of these men, clearly a necessity in surviving both the boredom and the horror and subsequently dealing with the fallout once back home.
Its most powerful moments for me were in the occasions when it stepped outside of the Iraq-specific context and reminded us of the unfortunate timelessness of the effects of war on soldiers and their loved ones. A beautifully mounted scene with the men reading letters with expressionistic movements could have been taken from any conflict at any time and the resignation of one of the officer’s missives back home as he bemoans the youth of so many of his soldiers, “they’re nothing more than boys…”
Towards the end, the plaintive sounds of a bagpipe strikes up played by one of the company and in that moment, something just clicked in me and I completely choked up. Whether it was the emotion of the piece finally hitting home or the stirring of memories of my own Scottish maternal grandpa, who served with the Essex Yeomanry in Normandy (second from left on the pic) and my paternal granddad who served with the 53rd Welsh Reconnaissance Regiment, both of whom have now sadly passed away, but combined with the final sequence of a formation crumbling under attack yet the bond of brotherhood remaining strong as ever, it achieves something remarkable. Either way, in these final moments, Black Watch graduates from a good show to a hauntingly moving great show.