Staging war, in the gritty, eloquent ‘Black Watch’
A review of the critically acclaimed National Theatre of Scotland production, “Black Watch,” at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre through May 5, 2013.
Seattle Times theater critic
Through May 5, Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; $21.25-$55 (877-784-4849 or stgpresents.org).
Straight up: “Black Watch” is not an easy show to see (and hear).
This powerful National Theatre of Scotland piece, now at the Paramount Theatre, asks you to spend nearly two hours (without intermission) in the close-up company of profane, testosterone-fueled young soldiers whose joshing is laced with crude insults and four-letter epithets.
For Seattle Theatre Group’s welcome local premiere of the internationally renowned show, you are led through the Paramount auditorium to the curtained-off stage itself, where a narrow playing area is flanked by banks of chairs on two sides.
There you become embedded with members of an elite Black Watch battalion during the Iraq war, as they huddle in sweltering wagons (armored vans), and in desert barracks where the boredom is as stultifying as the heat.
These boys banter in thick Scottish accents, and aren’t the most scintillating chaps. But they ring true. And “Black Watch” plunges you into their wartime and postwar reality, their anger and vulnerability.
The excellent all-male cast makes utterly natural the dialogue, which is often faithful to playwright Gregory Burke’s interviews in Fife pubs with Black Watch vets. Gradually you come to know them as individuals.
And director John Tiffany intercuts gritty camaraderie with dreamlike dance sequences, projected news footage, military parading and choral and bagpipe tunes from centuries of Scottish warriors.
Initially produced in 2006, in the thick of the U.S.-led Iraq war, “Black Watch” is an anti-war piece but not a pacifist one.
The men we meet are proud of being part of a venerable fighting unit, created in the early 18th century, recruited mainly from small towns in Scotland and often joined by fathers, sons and grandsons from the same clans.
The show is framed by the interviews conducted by a researcher-character based on author Burke. The macho vets test, challenge, bait the poor guy, but eventually open up about their Iraq experiences (which are dramatized in flashback).
But “Black Watch” reaches beyond docudrama. It is an artistic rumination that turns a pool table into a tank, uses a whirlwind round of costume changes to tell the history of the regiment, conjures ballets of martial arts and fisticuffs.
Eloquent spates of ensemble choreography also convey the visceral reality and vulnerability of bodies dashing, marching, colliding and, in one breathtaking, Icarus-like effect, floating.
The impact of “Black Watch” isn’t immediate but cumulative. And it is both topical and philosophical.
One thrust is the searing sense of betrayal the soldiers express about this particular war, which they consider ill-conceived, ill-planned and (as even their commanding officer acknowledges) based on “the biggest foreign-policy disaster” imaginable.
The battalion members watch in amazement from raised scaffolding on Laura Hopkins’ spare set as American forces crush a small village in a four-hour bombing raid. Body count? Two civilians.
The chilling recognition that, for the first time, these professional soldiers are up against IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and bombers who are willing martyrs, hits home for them and for us — especially, for us, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing.
Were there ever “better wars” than this? Were battles the Black Watch waged over the centuries more worthy of the blood spilled and the glory gained?
Tiffany and Burke take care not to blame the enlisted men for what governments provoke, and to honor their sacrifices. And the tremendous cast of “Black Watch” (led by the magnetic Stuart Martin, as the most forthcoming soldier) reminds us what is really at stake when we send young men into battle.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org