Opinion: Black Watch

Beware of monoliths, they block out the sun

By Mark Brown

Is Black Watch truly the greatest theatre production Scotland has seen since 7:84 theatre company’s state-of-the-nation play The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil in 1973? Or has it, in the 20 months since it was first staged, become another Scottish national myth, a grand monument that testifies to the possibilities of theatre in Scotland, but also casts an obliterating shadow over everything else happening on the Scottish stage?

To be clear, I consider Black Watch to be a deeply impressive work of art in many ways. However, I disagree with those who think it is the greatest Scottish theatre work to emerge in 35 years. In fact, I don’t even believe it is the best piece in the two-year history of the National Theatre of Scotland; Dominic Hill’s wonderful production of Peer Gynt and Pol Heyvaert’s extraordinary Aalst are, in my view, worthier candidates.

The danger in the breathless acclaim for Black Watch is that it prevents discussion of the weaknesses of a production which has come, for many, to represent Scotland’s attitude to the imperial disaster in Iraq. There is a political imbalance in the play; while it is clearly critical of Bush and Blair’s Mesopotamian folly, it utters barely a word about the brutal colonial history of the regiment.

In an interview I conducted last year with playwright Gregory Burke, he confirmed to me that the important “uniforms” scene (in which the history of the Black Watch regiment is recounted) originally contained references to appalling episodes of colonial violence, such as the mass murder and castration of the Mau Mau in Kenya in the 1950s. The removal of such references was, he claimed, a mere matter of the routine cutting which goes on with any theatre production. I beg to differ. As it stands, the uniforms scene lends credence to the myth of a proud “golden thread” running through the Black Watch’s regimental history. Removing references to the blood red thread of racist, imperial butchery is surely more than a question of cutting a few minutes off the play’s running time.

I am not the only critic to raise this objection. The Scotsman’s chief theatre critic, Joyce McMillan, wrote in her review of the original 2006 production: “[the play] has little to say about the suffering [the Black Watch] inflicts, or about the dark strain of colonial savagery in the regiment’s history”. In his astute review for the Los Angeles Times last year, Charles McNulty wrote that there is, in the play, “little grappling with [the regiment’s] colonial and mercenary baggage and way too much about its glorious courage and character”.

My difficulty with Black Watch is that it appears to have become something it did not intend to be; namely, an anti-war play which criticises the politicians for the disaster in Iraq, yet all but whitewashes the colonial history which led us there.

Mark Brown is a theatre critic and freelance writer.

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on March 22 2008

© Mark Brown

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