Tales from the front line:
The playwright Gregory Burke has revitalised Scottish theatre. He talks to Mark Brown about his Iraq war drama Black Watch, Hampstead liberals and why he’d never vote SNP:
Gregory Burke, the 38-year-old writer who is being touted as one of Scottish theatre’s brightest hopes, feels he has been wrongly labelled as a “political playwright”. He recalls how, after the success of his 2001 comedy Gagarin Way, which revolved around a bungled political kidnapping, “people would be expecting you to be this person who comes off the plane and says, ‘Smash the state!’ I’m not like that.”
His most recent play, the Iraq war drama Black Watch, is unlikely to change that perception. Centred around interviews with ex-soldiers from the historic Scottish regiment of the same name, it considers the Iraq conflict through the eyes of troops who have been there.
Black Watch – which opened at the Edinburgh Fringe last year and has now begun a UK tour – does not attempt to give an Iraqi angle on events, opting instead for fictionalised scenes based on the interviews, as well as dramatisations of the men’s experiences. Though the story is often told with a dismissive dark humour, the horror of war is never far from the surface in a production soundtracked by explosions and emotive music.
By means of some inspired choreography and set design, the locations range from deserts to the inside of an armoured car. In Iraq itself, we see the Scottish soldiers as they watch the US air force destroy a village. Another scene, the most heart-rending of the play, deals with the immediate result of a suicide car-bomb attack a split second after the explosives are detonated.
Burke explains that despite the critical acclaim that Black Watch and Gagarin Way have attracted, he never set out to be a playwright in the first place. After dropping out of his economics degree course at Stirling University (because, he says, “in second year it turned into maths”), he spent time on the dole, did a variety of low-paid jobs “sweeping floors and doing dishes” and, finally, dabbled in a little writing.
When he began to write, the theatre was very far from his mind. “I started out thinking Gagarin Way would be a screenplay. However, when I wrote it – and it was set in one room, densely written and wordy – I thought: ‘There’s nothing there for TV or film: this is theatre.’ So I sent it to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh; but I don’t know why I wrote a stage play, other than I just found it very natural and very easy.”
Burke says that his work is driven by an interest in identity and the last days of what he calls “working-class institutions”, rather than a concern for partisan politics. Black Watch also sketches the history of the regiment, which was controversially amalgamated into a larger Scottish army unit last year. In a cleverly executed scene in this launch production by the new National Theatre of Scotland, a soldier tells the official version of the regiment’s development as he is dressed, in turn, in each of the many Black Watch uniforms.
The playwright is forthcoming about his own political views. He comes, he explains, from staunch Labour Party stock. “Labour could behead me and my dad would still say: ‘Aye, well, they’re all right.'” However, like so many other people from among the party’s traditional supporters, Burke has become disenchanted.
The likely success of the Scottish National Party at the May elections to the Scottish Parliament has, he believes, little to do with an upsurge in political patriotism. “It’s more of a case of people going into the polling booth being fed up with Labour,” he says.
For his part, Burke will not be joining in with the SNP protest vote. “I’ve never subscribed to any kind of nationalism. I cannot support a party that believes there’s something special about the people that live in a specific geographical area.”
Coming from Dunfermline, Burke also has particular views on Gordon Brown (who was MP for Dunfermline East from 1983 to 2005, and remains an MP for a neighbouring Fife constituency). “I think people in Fife like Gordon Brown. He’s a very serious person, very intellectual, but I think he’s probably doing the wrong thing playing the whole ‘Britishness’ card. It’s the worst kind of spinning of his image to try to capture Middle England.”
Burke’s aversion to nationalism, both Scottish and British, makes the Black Watch regiment a somewhat curious choice as the subject for one of his dramas. However – he insists – contrary to the representation in the stage play of a tense relationship between a middle-class writer and the rough-and-ready working-class squaddies, Burke found that in reality he had a lot in common with his interviewees. “When I went to meet the soldiers, within two minutes I found out that one of them knew my cousin and that I knew another boy’s big sister.”
A bit of artistic licence had to be applied, he says, in order to give the scenes more tension and make them entertaining. He wanted the writer’s character to be “like David Hare”, he explains with a mischievous grin. “It was like, ‘Imagine what would have happened if David Hare had gone in that pub to meet with the ex-soldiers.’ Soldiers aren’t Hampstead liberals.”
Some critics have complained that the piece sanitises the real regiment’s often brutal past. “In the original draft, there was a lot more historical material,” the playwright concedes. “There was a line I was going to put in about the Mau Mau in Kenya [where the Black Watch was sent in 1953] where the soldier says: ‘We cut the balls off the black bastards’ – which they did.”
There were also objections, even during rehearsals of the piece, to the lack of Iraqi characters. “People complain that there are no Iraqi voices in the play,” Burke admits. “That was absolutely down to me. I can’t tell an Iraqi person’s version of the war, and to think that I could would be to adopt the same attitude that made us invade their country in the first place. That had to be kept out.”
This article was first published in the New Statesman on 26 March 2007
© Mark Brown