It has been a successful year for Caledonian theatre; Dunsinane, Men Should Weep and even Sunshine On Leith proving some of the theatrical high points of the year. Returning to the Barbican following a sell out season last year, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch, however, trumps them all.
Looking at a section of the historical Black Watch regiment posted to Iraq, this is a hard hitting look at not just this conflict but 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.
There are impressive performances from the entire company, totally convincing as both a coherent military unit but also as detailed individuals. The sheer energy and conviction of the company hold attention from start to end. Atmospheric lighting by Colin Greenfell and an evocative sound design by Gareth Fry complement Laura Hopkins imaginative set design.
Although looking at a specific Scottish Regiment the tale here is much more universal and, given current debate on conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, one that has never been more topical. And, in Black Watch, never more thrillingly staged.