Theatre in Wales

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Black Watch- National Theatre of Scotland , Ebbw Vale Leisure Centre , May 21, 2008
Theatre of Scotland by Black Watch- National Theatre of Scotland “Theatre without Walls” read the strapline on the National Theatre of Scotland's forty-foot truck as it squeezed into a slot at the back of Ebbw Vale's leisure centre. Theatre without borders too, as “Black Watch”, a regular sell-out in Scotland ever since its 2006 premiere, has yomped to America, both East and West coasts, and landed in Wales for a few days, before returning to Virginia next week, then Toronto. There could be some symbolism to be read in the fact that it arrives so late, next month, in London. The consensus from Westminster is that the Union is indissoluble; if those of that view were to get over to the Barbican, they would surely tremble. “Black Watch” is theatre that is both national and nationalist.

The action cuts between a bar in Fife, snooker table and darts, and the deployment in Camp Dogwood in Iraq of a section, eight infantry and a sergeant, of the Black Watch regiment. At the request of one of them, Campbell, the soldiers back home have agreed to meet an out-of-place playwright, or rather, as they think, his female researcher.

“Black Watch” has already played in the different setting of Radio 4. That medium gave small hint of the physicality of the play live. The long space of the leisure centre was used to its full length, for marching and mime, tense patrol and pool game, regimental song and funeral music. Movement was the special work of director John Tiffany's associate director Steven Hoggett.

Another associate director, Davey Anderson, had responsibility for music. Between him and sound designer Gareth Fry they produced a stunning soundscape, from pipes to an achingly lovely Gaelic lament, the only female voice in a stream of male language, from private and officer alike, which made playwright Gregory Burke's expletive-laden first play “Gagarin Way” sound like Beatrix Potter. After the physicality of the action, when the last note of music died the only sound to be heard was panting, and this from fit young actors.

“Black Watch” is by no stretch a pacifist play. The wars which the regiment has fought on every continent are simply “the Golden Thread” of history. The infantry is unpatronisingly shown as fuelled by adrenalin and testosterone, bonded in comradeship by hazard. In peacetime Fife the alternative to joining up is viewed as serving behind the counter of a Tesco delicatessen. But they know their history, which includes, ominously, Mesopotamia ninety years ago. They know the difference between Kosovo and Iraq. “What did it mean to be in Iraq?” asks the writer and receives no reply. “It takes three hundred to build an institution that is admired around the world” says the sympathetic officer “and two years of the greatest foreign policy f-up ever to destroy it.”

Soldier Campbell early on has been reading T E Lawrence's “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, or rather half a torn-up copy. At the play's end he opts to leave the regiment against all the persuasive powers, well-intended, of his patrician commanding officer. It is neither fear nor opposition to soldiering, in fact the opposite, that drives him. He can see no point in remaining. It is not too fanciful to see in this act of fiction writ small Scotland's own march towards leaving an institution whose point it can no longer see.

It would be easy with this subject to tip over into polemic. But Gregory Burke wisely lets character lead so that wider, bitter points emerge out of dramatic situation rather than being the precursor of it. And beyond the heat, the tedium, the danger he does sew in some potent content.

Up on a big screen Alec Salmond briefly exchanges words with a testy Geoff Hoon, a reminder of what an unstoppable force now drives the Parliament in Holyrood. When the regiment is moved North from the then relatively easier setting of Basra- the action is set in 2004- we are reminded that eight hundred plus Scots are taking the place of four thousand American marines. The relationship on the ground with the allies is shown to be pretty edgy. Even the superior American camp beds are a source of envy. More seriously, when a broken-down vehicle leaves the section exposed they state that that the American war machine would have had them out at speed.

After an outbreak of violence back on home ground Campbell comments that when the Ministry of Defence wants to re-deploy mentally unfit soldiers it routinely “loses” papers. The soldiers tell the nervous playwright of an incident in which a “tankie” is brought in to deal with a lone sniper. Rather than change ammunition a uranium-tipped shell is fired to deal with the single enemy, and vapourises five entire buildings along with every civilian who might have been within them. Up on the big screen they, and we, watch film from an aerial view of the bombing of Fallujah. Apart from the awe the infantry express, there is awareness of the mismatch of strength and tactics. “Bullying” is their ironic word for it.

No programmes were available at the performance. But, from the cast of ten, all male, it would in any case be impossible to pick out one performance that stood out from the ensemble. The sound design thrills. It was clear why the company needed that forty-footer, to carry the amplifiers and speakers.

An hour and fifty minutes without interval “Black Watch” is blistering, confident, caustic and compassionate national theatre. To be in Ebbw Vale, in particular, is to reminded of its greatest hero, Bevan, founder of the one institution above all that United Kingdom citizens- correction, subjects- hold in reverence and affection. “Black Watch”, by contrast, has the smell of a predictive time bomb about it. The audience rose to its feet.

Adam Somerset

21 May 2008

Postscript: I held back from reading Michael Kelligan so as not to pre-judge the production. But he says “world class”- too right.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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