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War stories of ‘Black Watch’ are explosively intimate

CamerBarnes stars as MaccNational Theatre Scotland’s producti'Black Watch' presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater Broadway Armory Oct. 10–21 2012.

Cameron Barnes stars as Macca in National Theatre of Scotland’s production of "Black Watch," presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Broadway Armory, Oct. 10–21, 2012.

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When: Through Oct. 21

Where: Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway

Tickets: $38-$52

Info: (312) 595-5600;


Updated: November 13, 2012 6:21AM

“No, you do NOT understand,” shouts one of the emotionally battered young soldiers in Gregory Burke’s “Black Watch” who is being interviewed about his service in 2004 in the war in Iraq, where he was part of the fabled Scottish regiment of the title.

He is right, of course. For it is not just the nightmarish mixture of boredom, bravado, homesickness, horniness, nerves, idiocy and terror, or even the metabolism-shifting response to ear-shattering bombs — all of which are a part of war. You might get closer to the insanity of it all by knowing something about the absolute horror of seeing your mates blown to bits by a suicide bomber — a woman who has been stopped at a checkpoint. But even then, you’re still not really quite there.

I have been thinking about the emotional minefields planted in “Black Watch” ever since the Chicago Shakespeare Theater first presented this devastating National Theater of Scotland production at the Broadway Armory in March 2011.

Watching Wednesday night’s return engagement of the enthralling mix of grand-scale spectacle and intimate storytelling — a testament to both dramatic invention and physical expressiveness — I began to make a list of unforgettable moments in this 110-minute intermissionless work, which is based on interviews with former soldiers but which goes far beyond “testimony.” It was a very long list. Every scene grabbed hold. As directed by John Tiffany and choreographed by Steven Hoggett (who subsequently teamed on the unique Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Once”), “Black Watch” becomes a hybrid of pure theater, cinematic motion and the powerhouse balletics of military life. It creates a language of its own, just as war does.

The production is set in motion in a pub, where ex-soldier Cammy (the small, fleet, marvelously intense Ryan Fletcher) has gathered some pals around a pool table. They are expecting a sexy young woman from the theater to interview them. They get a shy guy (Robert Jack, who later plays a steely young sergeant) carrying a messenger bag.

Before long, the pool table becomes a berm, or a coffin, or the truck in which five men spend endless days knowing that an improvised explosive device could well be waiting for them on the road. They are sitting ducks.

Of course the obscenities (which sound better with a heavy brogue) fly at every turn — whether at the meaninglessness of orders on paper, or the command to rid the barracks of “pornographic” pictures, or the fantasies of unattainable favorite foods. Letters from home trigger a haunting quiet moment as the men stand apart, using nothing but small gestures to suggest their immense longing, loneliness, heartbreak. An extended “dance” of hand-to-hand combat suggests that what might be boys “playing rough” in basic training can easily turn into men at war. And as Cammy is continually dressed in updated uniforms, these latest members of the Black Watch recount how soldiers in this centuries-old regiment have seen combat in every corner of the world, even if they have particular vitriol for THIS expedition, in which they are backing the Americans. As one of them says, they are fighting for “porn and petrol.” (The politics get far more pointed than that, too.)

Along the way, with little more than Laura Hopkins’ scaffolding-and-“barracks box” for a set (and with brilliant sound by Gareth Fry and lighting by Colin Grenfell), Davey Anderson’s superb musical scoring counters the blasts in an entirely organic way.

In the show’s breathtaking finale, the cast of 10 (which effortlessly suggests hundreds and includes Fletcher, Jack, Chris Starkie as the short-fused Stewarty, and Cameron Barnes, Scott Fletcher, Andrew Fraser, Stephen McCole, Adam McNamara, Richard Rankin and Gavin Jon Wright), breaks into a grueling maneuver, alternately marching in formation, falling and getting hauled back into high-stepping line. By then you might still not fully understand what it means to be in the war zone, but without doubt you are profoundly changed.

Note: Now onstage through Oct. 28 at Chicago Shakespeare’s Upstairs Theater at 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier is yet another production by the National Theater of Scotland — “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart.” It’s a real doozy. So if you start to hear bagpipes, rest easy: It’s nothing more than a Scottish cultural invasion.

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