War plays are tough, and not just because war is hell.
With perhaps the exception of Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” there aren’t many plays that take place IN a war, in its atmosphere of tension and danger, portraying soldiers as they live and die. Certainly, there are few if any that deal with the immediacy of ongoing conflicts like Iraq or Afghanistan.
But the absolutely amazing new play, “Black Watch,” from the National Theatre of Scotland, breaks new ground in ways that will open your eyes like a splash of cold water. At turns tough and tender, gritty and realistic in its language, and powerfully theatrical in its style, “Black Watch” focuses on a unit of the legendary Scottish regiment while it served in the darker days of Iraq combat. The soldiers are distinctly Scottish in sound, uniform and history, but they open up a bright light that could easily fit the experience of American soldiers in Iraq or in Afghanistan.
War and combat aren’t easily accommodated on stage—they’re too big, too loud, too bloody, too incomprehensible, and too dangerous to deal with realistically. But the talented director John Tiffany has gotten around that problem by fusing movement, music and sounds. Mortars and explosions go off against the profane language of soldiers and the vague precision of military talk, coming up with a kind of theater that you’re not likely to have seen before.
Because the actors playing the soldiers are so good, natural and physical, the experience of the play—and the experience of the soldiers—gets a grip on your heart. It sweeps you away at times, bringing out both tender and angry feelings, and sharpening whatever ideas we might have about what has happened to American troops who fought in Iraq, as well as those still battling in the weathered, bleak outposts in Afghanistan.
Writer Gregory Burke interviewed Scottish veterans who served in the Iraq war and got some pungent, moving stories. Depending on where you’re sitting, you get a visceral feel for barracks life—the dirty talk, the razzing, the tension, the bitching about daily boredom broken up by patrols in armored cars, the occasional explosions, the frustrating combat and forays that result in casualties and no discernible triumphs.
This is not an anti-war play, nor is it a beat-your-chest patriotic piece about the war on terror. It’s a play about the life of a particular military unit, a proud, glory-rich unit in Scotland, and what that war was like for them.
The troops, uniformly speaking in rich, spit-full Scottish accents, comprise a cohesive group, almost a classic, clichéd combat squad. You have every type of soldier: experienced, naïve, short, tall, big and thin, blondes and brunettes, quiet and blustering. They come from the same places in Scotland, their points of references are the same, and to varying degrees, they’re proud of being in this regiment with its storied history.
You get the bull and tension of barracks, tents, day rooms, the fuzzy television, the lockers posted with porn, the sergeant who tries to be a leader to his men, the grizzled commander who stomps about like a square bowling ball. The lads are never anything less than real, but the environment is stylized: a pool table morphs into an armored vehicle, from which soldiers in full combat gear emerge, like the Marx Brothers tumbling out of a state room.
When the soldiers talk about home or recall their experiences to a reporter or rag each other mercilessly, the scenes are sharp, funny, crisp and dirty. Hearing them, listening to them, seeing them move around each other, you get a sense of them as individuals, like the two young looking, almost bratty duo of Kenzie and Fraz, thin, dark-haired bundles of energy, played by Scott Fletcher and Jamie Quinn, respectively. There’s Jack Lowden as the thoughtful, sometimes brooding Cammy, and Paul Higgins who plays both the sarge and a news reporter.
But Tiffany has added something, making the experience poignant and as new as a hungry baby. He has created movement, stylized and militaristic in the same breath; they are marches and forms of dance that hype the war with emotion, driven by powerful music. It can be a small thing—the boys passing a single letter from home around, for instance, and each man makes something of his own in how he touches, holds or reads the letter, before passing it on. There is a parade-style march that reaches a rhythmic tempo, which energizes the audience, and might make you want to enlist—at least on stage. Tiffany creates combat and battle this way too, and the effect is heart-breaking as they continue to march, some of them staggering, falling, picked up and caught like trapeze artists, always moving on and together.
The end effect is that when they suffer loss and losses, we, the audience, do too. That’s something new.
“Black Watch” is on a national tour here. It’s at the Shakespeare Theater Company’s Harman Hall through Sunday. Drop what you’re doing. Go see it while you can. Visit ShakespeareTheatre.org for more information.