The 10th anniversary of the “Shock and Awe” invasion of Iraq has triggered recollections of, and debates over, the controversial war in Iraq, instigated by the U.S. in 2003 and costing dearly in blood.
Lest we forget, there were other nations in the so-named Coalition of the Willing engaged in the Iraq war, and they (along with the Iraqi people) also suffered losses.
Among the combat troops sent by the United Kingdom was a regiment of long heritage and high stature: the elite Black Watch of Scotland, which is the subject of a powerful theater piece that has been hailed by critics on both sides of the Atlantic and has toured from Sydney to Seoul.
Coming to Seattle’s Paramount Theatre this week by way of the National Theatre of Scotland, this inventive, dynamic work (which I first saw in New York several years ago) tackles a subject challenging to address onstage: the pride and commitment of elite soldiers through history, and the way modern combat has altered their roles and the nature of warfare itself.
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Performed on a long, narrow staging area with audiences on two sides of the action (the Paramount will change its usual seating configuration to accommodate), the highly visual piece melds military pageantry and music with rough humor, historical notes, audiovisuals and the gritty, sympathetic depiction of contemporary warriors.
“The Black Watch is different from most military regiments in the U.S.,” explains former National Theatre of Scotland associate artistic director John Tiffany, who staged the production (as well as the Tony-winning musical “Once,” which will come to the Paramount in 2014).
“Black Watch members tend to be recruited from very small geographic areas, therefore it’s very tribal,” says Tiffany. “ It’s almost a family business — your brother, your uncle, your cousin, your grandfather might be in it, too. This was one of the oldest military regiments in the world, with a strong, proud identity, and an illustrious history going back to the Jacobite Wars (of the 18th century).”
A news story about several Scottish soldiers blown up in a suicide bomb attack in Iraq, and another about the venerable Black Watch being dissolved as a separate brigade, spurred Tiffany and playwright Gregory Burke to start devising the piece in 2005.
“Greg probably would’ve been in the Black Watch if he wasn’t deaf in one ear. And I’m from a working-class family in Yorkshire, where a lot of people I was in school with went into the army,” Tiffany notes. “I’m interested in that as a choice. By and large it’s the working-class folk who become the squaddies (soldiers).”
Script research included Burke interviewing Black Watch members in pubs they frequented. “They didn’t get involved in conversations about politics, or the legality of the war in Iraq,” says Tiffany. “While politicians were arguing about it, it was refreshing that these people were just trying to do the best job they could in hard circumstances.
“They were sent off quickly, without the proper equipment or ability to deal with terrorism and IED (improvised explosive device) attacks. I came away with a deeper sense that they’d been betrayed by the war as much, or more, as any of us.”
Avoiding a dry, didactic approach, Tiffany and colleagues used a variety of techniques to capture the Black Watch over time. In one impressive segment, as the regiment’s history is recounted, a soldier is garbed in a quick-changing fashion parade of uniforms adopted over three centuries.
“I was really fascinated by the way the uniforms evolved — the bearskin hats, the kilts, all the modifications. That gave us some great theatricality in terms of the movement, the music, the costuming.”
In its 2006 debut, “Black Watch” won raves. London’s Guardian newspaper hailed it as a work of “blood, guts and thunder” that was “intercut with lyrical moments of physical movement, like some great dirty ballet of pulsating machismo and terrible tenderness.”
Though the Black Watch has been absorbed into a larger “super Scottish” army regiment, the play has done service much longer than Tiffany expected. “We’ve been to Canada, Australia, Ireland. Last autumn we took it to South Korea. That was incredible! That country had a presence in Iraq and lost troops there, and had a special relationship with the Black Watch, watch was an important force in the Korean War in the 1950s.”
Tiffany, now an independent director, has moved on to other high-profile projects, including a solo version of “Macbeth” starring Alan Cumming now on Broadway.
But demand for “Black Watch” persists. “We keep saying this is the last tour. Then Seattle gets on the phone, and we say, OK!
“The show’s success has given me confidence that audiences want something that feels immersive and alive, something they can affect somehow by being in the audience. It’s a philosophy that was emerging for me, and ‘Black Watch’ seemed to embody it so powerfully.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org