This was the National Theatre of Scotland’s hit from the Edinburgh Festival last year now touring Scotland, then London, and hopefully USA. Black Watch is a site specific ‘event theatre’ – a bit like “The Ship” or “The Big Picnic”, and finding venues to suit has not been easy. This performance, one of the first of a series in Scotland after the astonishing Edinburgh Festival run, was held in a former hydraulic workshop at Port na Craig, just next to Pitlochry Theatre. By reputation, it was a ‘do not miss under any circumstances’ production.
A good chunk of the audience almost missed this, as temporary traffic lights on the bridge north of the Hermitage resulted in unexpected massive northbound queues – the theatre did manage to hold the start for a few minutes to let everyone in, because it was a performance that the audience could not join after the start.
So, ‘Edinburgh Tattoo style’ we sat on either side of a performing area, and there were even tartan rugs to keep our knees warm if we wanted. The beginning announcement was as if we were on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle, and then we were taken on an amazing journey.
Gregory Burke assembled the piece using material gleaned from real Black Watch soldiers, and cast a ‘writer’ doing just that in this piece. To briefly explain some political real-life background: The Black Watch is a Scottish Regiment with history going way back. It recruits from Perthshire, Fife and Angus mainly, and its soldiers very much identify with the regimental ‘family’ organisation. The Ministry of Defence has controversially announced the amalgamation of all the regiments in Scotland into one, although there are to be identifiers retained. With the Black Watch playing a major role in the Iraq conflict, a conflict which has not had general approval, the timing of the announcement was unfortunate to say the least.
So, Black Watch told us about the Regiment, its history, how soldiers are recruited, some of the peculiar customs, and what the soldiers thought of what they were doing – in Iraq in particular. The production by John Tiffany was thrilling, and had some wonderful set-pieces. The cast had clearly done lots of army drill to be able to perform the parts, but they were choreographed as well. It is difficult to describe without spoiling it for those yet to see this, but the ‘History of the Black Watch’, the ‘Pool Table’, and ‘Letters Home’ were particularly outstanding, as was the final 20 minutes of the show.
I have to say that I felt mixed emotions at the end. Angry about the dilution of identity of the Black Watch regiment, upset about the casualties and the Iraq war. Yet I felt we had been let into a whole other world, and learned something about soliders and the modern army in the process. It was a thrilling and very overwhelming piece of theatre: it was enjoyable, but its message was very strong.
This production will undoubtably go down as a landmark in the history of Scottish Theatre, and people will be talking about it for years. It will be a benchmark against which other theatre will be measured. It is very much theatre of its time. You have to see it.
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