There are two words for the National Theatre of Scotland’s wrenching rendition of Scottish playwright Gregory Burke’s harrowing Iraq war play, Black Watch, which occupied the Memorial Hall stage on Feb. 8-13 as part of Carolina Performing Arts’ International Theater Festival. They are Shock and Awe.
Burke’s incendiary script is based on interviews with disillusioned Scots who served in Iraq as part of Coalition Forces assembled to fight the War on Terror. Yet instead of running terrorists to ground and exterminating them in their lairs, the members of the legendary Black Watch regiment who served in Iraq all too often found themselves assigned to play dangerous supporting roles in which they were sitting ducks for every insurgent with a military-surplus mortar or RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) launcher. Indeed, their service in Iraq was punctuated by a series of explosions from mortar rounds lobbed into their encampments and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that the enemy deployed at roadside to blow the invading Infidels to kingdom come.
Part of the genius of Black Watch is that playwright Gregory Burke and director John Tiffany seat the audience on stage — right on top of the action — where they can wince at the flash of pyrotechnic devices and feel the concussion of explosive devices shake the chairs on which they sit.
The most electrifying scene in Black Watch dramatizes the awful moments immediately after one of the regiment’s armored war wagons triggers an IED, and endures catastrophic casualties, including a trio of blood-spattered dead and dying men who were blown sky high and now float earthward in slow motion. It is a shocking climax that literally blew the audience away.
An ensemble piece with a core of young buzz-cut actors who represent the interchangeable cogs in every country’s war machine, Black Watch is a one hour and 50 minute up-close-and-personal tour of the frontlines in the ongoing Iraq War. Jack Lowden as Cammy represents a typical soldier, whom he vividly sketches in all his ragged glory. Paul Higgins distinguishes himself in the dual roles of the squad’s Sergeant and a Writer (presumably playwright Gregory Burke) who invades a pool room in Fife to debrief the skittish troops gathered there to drown their post-traumatic stress in oceans of alcohol.
Ian Pirie likewise provides a pair of pithy portraits as the squad’s Officer and — in a flashback scene — a pugnacious Lord Elgin swinging a two-handed sword to rouse the troops under his command. The actors impersonating the rest of the squad — Scott Fletcher as Kenzie, Chris Starkie as Stewarty, Jamie Quinn as Fraz, Richard Rankin as Granty, Ross Anderson as Rosco, Stuart Martin as Nabsy, and Cameron Barnes as Macca — also make indelible impressions, and the highly original way that dramatist Gregory Burke and director John Tiffany interweave flashbacks from the Black Watch’s proud past with episodes from its ignominious present make this searing indictment of going to war without concrete goals and an exit strategy all the more troubling.
SECOND OPINION: Feb. 11th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel review by Thankful Cromartie: http://www.dailytarheel.com/index.php/blog/canvas/2011/02/quotblack_watchquot_brings_realities_of_war_to_life_in_an_intimate_emotional_setting, Feb. 10th review by Nick Andersen: http://www.dailytarheel.com/index.php/blog/canvas/2011/02/quotblack_watchquot_a_gritty_powerful_spectacle, and Feb. 9th preview by Britton Alexander: http://www.dailytarheel.com/index.php/article/2011/02/black_watch_takes_iraq_war_to_memorial_hall; Feb. 9th Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 5 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/artery/archives/2011/02/10/an-all-out-assault-on-political-and-artistic-complacency-black-watch-at-memorial-hall; Feb. 6, 2011 Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Rebecca J. Ritzel: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/02/06/968502/scotsmen-at-war.html; Jan. 30, 2011 Washington Post review by Peter Marks: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/30/AR2011013004534.html; July 16, 2010 New York City Playbill Magazine preview by Kenneth Jones: http://www.playbill.com/news/article/141265-Black-Watch-Acclaimed-Scottish-Drama-of-Soldiers-in-Iraq-Will-Play-US-Dates-in-2011; Nov. 4, 2007 broadcast of “All Things Considered” (National Public Radio): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15939540; Oct. 24, 2007 New York Times review by Ben Brantley: http://theater.nytimes.com/2007/10/24/theater/reviews/24watch.html?ref=theaterspecial and Oct. 15, 2007 preview by Patrick Healy: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/15/arts/15scot.html?_r=1&ref=theater; and Aug. 29, 2006 broadcast of “All Things Considered” (NPR): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5732408. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Feb. 8th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click https://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2011/02/black-watch-is-visceral-complex-and-urgent/.)
VIDEO PREVIEW: http://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/content/default.asp?page=s663.
The Play: http://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/content/default.asp?page=home_Black Watch 2010 (official web page) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Watch_(play) (Wikipedia).
Gregory Burke: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_Burke (Wikipedia).
National Theatre of Scotland: http://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/ (official website) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Theatre_of_Scotland (Wikipedia).
The Regiment: http://www.theblackwatch.co.uk/ (Museum of the Black Watch), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Watch (Wikipedia).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review,a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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