by Byron Woods
Rumor confirmed: The National Theatre of Scotland’s production of BLACK WATCH, in residence at UNC’s Memorial Hall through Sunday, Feb. 13, is easily the strongest show of the season—and, hands down, one of the strongest productions this region has seen over the past decade.
Even if they sell out, as they likely will, the empty seats I saw during Wednesday night’s sold-out opening show are enough to encourage theater artists and devotees to arrive early on show dates at the Memorial Hall loading dock (the only entrance for this performance) and stand by for last-minute cancellations, particularly since latecomers cannot be seated for this production. Even if the run's other performances won’t coincide with a UNC/ Duke basketball game, there are almost always no-shows in such circumstances.
What waits inside is truly worth it. Black Watch is a compelling, convincing example of what theater can truly achieve—but far too rarely does. With an unflinching, semi-documentary script based on interviews with Scottish Iraqi War veterans, wire-taut direction, bone-deep characterizations from a cadre of fully committed actors, unexpectedly devastating real-world-based choreography, and superior tech and design, Black Watch is an immersive, percussive and visceral theatrical experience.
Given the Scottish ancestry that laces North Carolina’s foothills and mountains, many readers may already know that the Black Watch was an elite group of Scottish warriors whose beginnings date back to the early 1700s. Gregory Burke’s script focuses on the battalion’s last mission before being dissolved—in mid-mission—into what are now known as the Royal Regiments of Scotland.
Though the group had been previously deployed to Iraq during the initial attack on Basra, political controversy accompanied their redeployment in 2004. In October of that year, during the re-election campaign of George W. Bush, the U.S. Army unexpectedly asked the regiment to replace a unit of American soldiers several times their size in a region later called the “Triangle of Death,” just below Fallujah. Despite objections at home, the troops were sent.
What they encountered there is the subject of Burke’s play.
One quote in the show’s press material claims this work shows the experience of war through its subjects’ eyes. That, however, is too mild a description by half. It’s much more accurate to say instead that Black Watch propels its audience, without warning, into the memories—and the flashbacks—its subjects experience as they’re being interviewed in an Edinburgh pub. As they unfold, the bleachers on which the audience sits at the front and back of the Memorial Hall stage actually quiver with the impact of mortar fire, closer and further away, while a dry, dusty desert haze slowly filters in. These precede the inevitable moments where the war world and the world back home bleed into one another.
More than once, the unnamed researcher’s questions—the ones that trigger these excursions and bring the war back home—make us cringe. Repeatedly, we realize that this quiet man has no idea what danger he is in as he sits unarmed, save for a clipboard, across from a sextet of men who’ve been trained to kill, seen killing done—and who have become, to varying degrees, destabilized by the experience. They’re not the kind of men you really want to ply with endless alcohol by mouth—just, you know, to loosen them up a bit—before getting them to relive what the war was really like.
For as the Guinness flows, the blast doors on these soldiers’ psyches start to… bend a bit. Then they give way a bit more. And then they open.
The members of the platoon are individual studies in contrasting tones of cynicism, camaraderie, aggression, youthful high spirits and self-doubt. Though young, they are clearly warriors: people capable of damaging or lethal effect. Their anger is fueled, in part, by the deep-seated frustrations and insecurities of people whose identities and self-worth are at stake.
“I think people make their minds up about you when you say you’re in the army,” Cammie states at the outset: “You can’t get a job.”
For different reasons, these are men who feel they have something they must prove—as do the suicide bombers who oppose them, the script carefully notes.
In its writing, design, direction and execution, Black Watch isn’t just a work that asks us to accept a new responsibility as it walks us down the warriors’ path. Its theatrical achievement is ultimately a call as well for us—as creators, audiences and critics alike—to step up our expectations, our level of professional practice and our ideas of what theatrical excellence actually is. This production has the power to shake us out of a political—and artistic—complacency that is the enemy of true progress. Simply put, it must be seen.