The international touring company production of “Black Watch” — the hit play from Edinburgh about a harrowing tour of duty in Iraq by a legendary Scottish Army regiment — is giving Bay Area theatergoers a chance to see how politics play out in unconventional 21st-century warfare along with mental and physical impacts on frontline troops.
In association with American Conservatory Theater, the National Theatre of Scotland is staging its roundly acclaimed production on the drill court of San Francisco’s Mission Armory, a setting that lends itself to the fresh realism of the drama initially produced in Edinburgh in 2006 and first brought to St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York in 2007. This is the company’s fourth international tour.
Written by Scottish playwright Gregory Burke, the play shines a glaring spotlight on soldiers deployed to the Sunni Triangle as members of the Black Watch, a regiment that dates to the 18th century.
A renowned group of military men, Scotland’s Black Watch has been on the battlefield engaged in conflicts that stretch from America’s colonies to Crimea.
Burke says in program notes that “our soldiers don’t fight for Britain or for the government or for Scotland. They fight for their regiment. Their company. Their platoon. And for their mates.” His nerve-wracking drama makes that point and many more.
Incorporating astonishingly physical choreography by Steven Hoggett, the intense story about a group of young soldiers based near Fallujah comes from interviews Burke conducted with regiment soldiers, taken from discussions in a pool hall in Fife to an armored wagon anchored in the scorching desert heat. The Scottish regiment numbered 800, Burke points out, sent to replace some 4,000 Marines who were being withdrawn from the battle zone.
“Black Watch” takes its audiences not only into combat but also tells the story of what’s happening on the homefront from the soldiers’ point of view, which it does with not only with bravura acting of 10 Scots but also video sequences, song, dance and an extraordinary sound score.
Moving about the performance space with military drill-like precision, the officers and rank-and-file provide candid thoughts that encompass home life, ambitions, fears, braggadocio and the obvious confusion of combat.
Viewed through the eyes of those sent off to join an international armed force, “Black Watch” reveals what it means to be part of the legendary Scottish regiment, what it means to be part of the war on terror and what it means to make the journey home again.
Whether displaying the regimental dress over centuries of campaigns or the raw emotion of a testosterone-driven brawl, the production takes on the trappings of ballet and modern dance at times. Now and again, the Scottish dialect makes some conversations difficult to follow; but not at the sacrifice of plot line.
The fate of this regiment — which was “amalgamated” with others while it was stationed in Iraq — might not register with as much significance here at it did at home. Nevertheless, what is clear — based on an officer’s admission that the Iraq invasion turned out to be a “foreign policy disaster” — is that the regiment’s sterling reputation was tarnished by Scotland sending its lads abroad this time around.
Directed by John Tiffany (who recently won the Tony Award for the acclaimed Broadway musical, “Once”), the remarkable cast of “Black Watch” includes Cameron Barnes, Stuart Martin, Scott Fletcher, Andrew Fraser, Robert Jack, Stephen McCole, Adam McNamara, Richard Rankin, Benjamin Davies and Gavin Jon Wright.
“Black Watch” has played to people across three continents, earning some two dozen awards, including four Laurence Olivier Awards in Great Britain, the National Theatre of Scotland, its first U.S. award with the New York Drama Circle naming “Black Watch” Best Foreign Play.