Review: Black Watch, Rothes Hall, Glenrothes

Theatre Review by Mark Brown

Director: John Tiffany; Barbican, London; 20 to 26 JuneThe National Theatre of Scotland’s Iraq War drama Black Watch is moving to the Barbican. It has been garlanded with awards since it opened at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2006. There are a variety of reasons why the play, which was written by Gregory Burke and directed by John Tiffany, has become such a hit.

The first is Burke’s script, based upon interviews conducted with former soldiers from the famous Scottish regiment of the British army, the Black Watch. Burke is himself working class from Fife (in the heart of the Black Watch’s recruitment area), and he captures brilliantly the speech and attitudes of rank and file soldiers, complete with the raucous humour and often dubious “canteen culture” with which they mask their distress over their tours of duty in Iraq. The script humanises the conflict in a way that much journalism from Iraq fails to do. It carries the mark of authenticity.

Excellent though Burke’s writing is, the acclaim for Black Watch rests at least as much on Tiffany’s directing. The director has created a number of visual set pieces (such as the transformation of a scene from a Scottish pub to the Iraqi battle zone, and the immediate aftermath of a suicide bomb attack) which are among the most memorable single moments I have ever encountered in the theatre.

Black Watch reflects many of the former soldiers’ misgivings about the occupation of Iraq; that, indeed, is part of the play’s popular appeal. Where the piece is more problematic, however, is in its reflections on the history of the Black Watch regiment.

At various points in the play, support appears to be given to the notion of a proud “golden thread” in the regiment’s past. By Burke’s own admission, elements of the script which reflected on the Black Watch’s blood red thread of colonial savagery, in countries such as Kenya and Palestine, were cut from the text.

As it now stands, Black Watch is a deeply impressive, and, in this re-cast tour, fabulously acted piece of theatre. Politically, although critical of the Iraq disaster, it makes needless concessions to the brutal imperial history of the Scottish regiment which gives the play its name.

This review was originally published in Socialist Review magazine, June 2008

© Mark Brown

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