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Black Watch

Phil Griffin loved the harsh dynamism of the National Theatre of Scotland's touring production

Published on May 12th 2008.

Black Watch

“It isn’t fuckin’ Evian water”

There is something strangely exciting about sitting in a big room full of people under a barrage of f(ucks).. and c(unts). Like, for one night only, being allowed to light up in the pub. Black Watch, National Theatre of Scotland’s blinding production from the 2006 Edinburgh Festival arrives in Salford, trailing clouds of glory. If all this squaddie banter had been written by a Londoner and delivered in estuarine English we might have been watching a play about the lethal undertow of the BNP.

The great thing about Black Watch is that it is not a night in the cinema, or in front of the telly. Neither is it, as it happens, a night in the theatre. It is a night in a camp site peopled by actors putting on a show.

Ten actors use a wide range of theatre skills to map the DNA of a historic Scottish regiment, against the back drop of the invasion of Iraq. Plumb in the middle of the show it all comes together on a swathe of red carpet rolled out the full length of the space. Cammy, the main narrator, fluently played by Paul Rattray intones the entire history of the Black Watch whilst his mates march him back and forth as his ensemble batman. The entire Black Watch back wardrobe of regimental uniforms, from boots to bonnets, puttees, sporran, kilts, tunics and Tam O’Shanters is chronologically conjured, swapped and changed in a drill that very nearly requires an encore.

Perhaps the only weak thread in the production is the one it all hangs on. Motivation, observation and angst are revealed through questions from a vapid television documentary researcher, who should have been a woman –therefore shaggable – but has been replaced by a man, who is very determinedly not Rageh Omaar. No matter. Energy, choreography and stage-craft easily carry the night. Sound and light design, projections and sound track pump up the pace that carries the cast over difficult terrain. Frustration, discomfort, prejudice and political bothering are all part of this world, and it is palpable.

In August 2006 Black Watch was the hottest ticket at the Edinburgh Festival. The National Theatre of Scotland had a hit that has toured the world. The Lowry presented it in Salford, not in one of their theatres, but in the Pie Factory, industrial sheds converted to television production in advance of Media City UK. It made for an exhilarating night. There was a lot of well conceived theatrical business here. Business, as in production techniques, box office savvy and marketability. Business, as in Show Business.

Soldiers in theatres of conflict is a theatrical genre. “(Events While Guarding) The Bofors Gun”, made it to the cinema in 1968. This is by John McGrath, founder of 7:84, Scotland’s National Theatre in waiting through the seventies and eighties. McGrath’s piece is about soldiers on a futile exercise guarding an obsolete weapon. Black Watch is about soldiering in a time of industrial obsolescence. No docks, no ship building, no alternative route to history and self-esteem. Back in devolved Edinburgh in 2006, with Blair in Downing Street and Black Watch subsumed into the Scottish Regiment after 266 years of autonomy, this particular theatrical event no doubt had great moment.

Pipes and drums, bonnets and hackles make for great theatre. There are bits of stagecraft in Black Watch right out of the Edinburgh Tattoo. There are insults and rudery and jokes, and an awful lot of f’s and c’s. The great thing about Black Watch is that it is not a night in the cinema, or in front of the telly. Neither is it, as it happens, a night in the theatre. It is a night in a camp site peopled by actors putting on a show. To take a line from the piece, they are not doing it for Britain or for Scotland or for the government. They are doing it for the Regiment, for the company, for their mates. Black Watch, written by Gregory Burke and directed by John Tiffany, affirms the power of contemporary theatrical production. Quick, slick, kaleidoscopic, committed, authentic, technical, intelligent, self-contained and full of talent.

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