Superb ‘Black Watch’ is riveting ‘theater of war’
BY HEDY WEISS Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org March 31, 2011 2:20PM
◆ Through April 10
◆ National Theatre of Scotland at the Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway (at Thorndale)
◆ Tickets: $38-$45
◆ (312) 595-5600; chicagoshakes.com
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
The military may have its own very specific definition of a “theater of war,” which involves geographical boundaries and strategic planning. But with the arrival here of “Black Watch,” the National Theatre of Scotland’s galvanic, angry, heart-shredding, physically thrilling touring production about the experiences of a group of soldiers stationed in Iraq — that phrase has been redefined. And it has been injected with an emotional ferocity that reaches every corner of the massive Broadway Armory where it is being presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.
The sense of being witness to a grand dramatic event hits you from the moment you enter the Armory, where bleacherlike seating for 650 rises on two sides of a playing space criss-crossed with searchlights and projections of the blue and white Scottish flag. Towers of scaffolding have been erected at either end of the space, with a battered green bunker door that also suggests a tank or a barracks outhouse on one side. The wail of bagpipes can be heard. But it is the massive explosions that erupt amid long passages of tense calm that best remind you of where you are.
Playwright Gregory Burke based “Black Watch” on interviews with young soldiers who served with Scotland’s fabled Black Watch regiment, and were called on to be backup for the U.S. troops who went into the insurgent holdout of Fallujah. The men’s time in Iraq is recalled by means of intensely vivid “reenactments” filled with all the gallows humor, boredom, false bravado, terror, anger, sexual energy and profound grief that comes with any fearsome combat experience. But as one soldier here explains, this war is different because suicide bombers destroy even the usual parameters of war.
“Black Watch” is almost literally a dance of death (and survival), with director John Tiffany and his brilliant associate, choreographer Steven Hoggett, fusing episodic scenes (spoken in Scottish accents as thick as haggis), with seamlessly rendered bursts of movement, pageantry, sound, light and music (by way of Davey Anderson).
The cast features eight actors led by the easily charismatic Jack Lowden (his cohorts include Richard Rankin, Ross Anderson, Chris Starkie, Cameron Barnes, Stuart Martin, Jamie Quinn and Scott Fletcher, all superb), along with Paul Higgins as the beleaguered interviewer and sergeant, and the impressive Ian Pirie as an old-line officer. Over the course of the show’s 110 minutes they create an ensemble with the sort of cohesion, virtuosity (and mischief) you well might find in a genuine army unit.
It is the choreographed sequences that in many ways exert the most intense power here. The history of the Black Watch is ingeniously enacted as Lowden is passed from one man to the next, continually being undressed and dressed in different uniforms as he chronicles the regiment’s centuries of global exploits (and subtly suggests both the glory and bloody meaninglessness of it all). The devastating despair of the soldiers is gorgeously conjured as they stand alone, reading letters from home, and retreating into gestures of unbearable psychic pain. When fistfights erupt among the soldiers the entire stage becomes a slow-motion ballet of sorts. At a climactic moment, the otherworldly free-fall of three bodies blown up by a roadside improvised explosive device is at once horrific and mind-altering. And the finale — with all the unity, pomp and circumstance of its parade formations — is a fascinating means of restoring order.
The show’s politics are kept relatively muted (“It’s all about petrol and porn,” says one of the men), with disgust for those on both sides in the Scottish government. The soldiers’ attitudes toward the Americans is a comical mix of envy and resentment at their “shock and awe” capabilities.
It is worth pointing out that the world’s current reign of terror may have begun with the bombing of a plane over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988 — an act with direct lines to Libya’s Moamar Gadhaffi. What goes around invariably comes around. But along the way, as “Black Watch” suggests, it’s the grunts who suffer the worst of it as they just try to do their job.