Writer: Gregory Burke
Director: John Tiffany
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
Theatre is often a fleeting experience. You become immersed in a world for a couple of hours, you may think about it for a couple of days later but rarely does a piece stay with you for months, even years after the event. The National Theatre of Scotland’s triumphant Black Watch, however, will live long in the memory. A visceral and vital piece of theatre that grabs its audience from the first moment and keeps them hooked throughout, this show deservedly earns its repeat showing, here the preview act for the Norfolk and Norwich Festival.
Although set against the backdrop of the Iraq war, the actual conflict doesn’t really matter. This isn’t a drama about the rights or wrongs of any political intervention, this is a hard hitting look at the mechanics of war, the camaraderie of military life, the macho posturing and the traumatic after effects of the horrors of battle.
It’s not comfortable viewing, nor should it be. Author Gregory Burke has immersed himself into the military mind and while the prose may not be pretty it does give a gritty realism to the piece. Here are a group of young men, away from home and loved ones in confined conditions. As their officer points out, it’s all down to porn and petrol.
Framed against the backdrop of a post-combat interview with a reporter looking at the impacts of the conflict, we begin to get to know the harsh reality of active service in Iraq. By the time the company suffers fatalities, the raw emotion is almost unbearable and as a lone piper salutes the fallen there are more than a few damp eyes in the auditorium.
John Tiffany’s direction is a fast paced hour and fifty minute mix of drama, music and physical theatre. As befits the subject it is all played with military precision. Choreographed and drilled to perfection, including a marvellous costumed journey through the Black Watch Regiment’s illustrious history, Steven Hoggett’s movement adds an almost balletic feel to the piece but it never loses the raw physicality of its military roots
There are impressive performances from the entire company (Cameron Barnes, Benjamin Davies, Scott Fletcher, Andrew Fraser, Robert Jack, Stephen McCole, Adam McNamara, Stuart Martin, Richard Rankin and Gavin Jon Wright) totally convincing as both a coherent military unit but also as detailed individuals. We get so involved in their individual stories that the pain of their suffering becomes all too palpable.
The sheer energy and conviction of the company is breathtaking, not a foot out of place, not a charge taken at anything less than full pelt, not a beat missed.
The University of East Anglia’s Sportspark gymnasium proves to be an ideal setting for the production, recreating the disused drill hall that first staged the show in 2006. Over the following seven years the show has toured extensively worldwide and comes to Norwich for the only English dates on its current tour. It’s easy to understand its long term success; there’s something deeply human about the story being told here and, while hopefully most of us will never have to face the horrors these men have faced, there is something readily identifiable to us all. It’s also a show that rewards repeat viewing, each new viewing revealing a further level of detail.
The debate on the reasons for the Iraq war, and in fact war in general, will continue to rage for years to come. Black Watch neither condones nor judges. Instead it records one of the country’s most historic regiments and the huge sacrifice its soldiers have made both now and over the centuries. Whatever your views on the conflict it’s a heart of stone that will fail to be moved by what remains one of the most compelling and engaging pieces of theatre you will ever have the privilege of watching.
Runs until April 20th