At the Broadway Armory
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Since 2006, the National Theatre of Scotland has been performing its stunning production of “Black Watch” throughout the Western world. The show played New York City in 2007 and 2008 and now Chicago finally gets its opportunity to see and marvel at one of the most talked about theatrical events of the decade.
“Black Watch” is being presented by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater as part of its World’s Stage series.
The Black Watch is a famous Scottish army regiment that dates back to the early eighteenth century. For almost 300 years the regiment has been fighting at home and away, the latest conflict being the Iraq war. Scottish playwright Gregory Burke assembled his play from interviews with Black Watch soldiers recalling their time supporting American forces in Iraq. Their words have been combined with video, music, choreography, song, and vivid sound and lighting effects into an intense sensory experience that brings home the war with an immediacy that transcends sound bytes and the blathering of the politicians.
The nature of “Black Watch” precludes performing the show in a traditional theater. For the Chicago visit, the production is in residence at the Broadway Armory on Chicago’s north side. The audience sitting in bleachers faces the actors on two sides, with the action unfolding in a horizontal space running down the middle of the playing area.
The narrative concentrates on a group of soldiers based near Falluja. The story moves back and forth in time, ranging from interviews with war veterans in a poolroom in Fife, Scotland, to their previous violent combat in Iraq. The show even delivers a regimental history rendered by one soldier who rapidly changes uniforms in keeping with the war the Black Watch is fighting at the time.
“Black Watch” is very much in the “War is hell” mode, with soldiers facing death on every mission, especially from suicide bombers, a phenomenon of warfare totally beyond their Western humanistic sensibilities. The narrative explores their fear (masked by bravado), their camaraderie, their boredom away from the battlefield, and their resentment against civilian authorities who botch the war in their eyes.
The production runs a bit under two hours with no intermission. A remarkable 10-man ensemble brings the interviews alive, interspersed with drill movement, mime, folk songs, and a bagpiper. The language is raw, drenched in the F--- and C--- words, sometimes as profanity but more often simply as the vocabulary of soldiers going about their daily lives in the barracks or on the front line.
Director John Tiffany and his staff of designers have done a brilliant job of orchestrating a production that is remarkable for both its precision and its feeling of inevitability. The spectator is quickly absorbed in the personalities of the soldiers, their casual and not so casual bickering and their bonding. The ensemble at the Broadway Armory is notable for the youth of the actors, most of them looking to be in their early 20’s, lending credibility to the image of young men going off to fight and perhaps die in a war many don’t understand or support.
“Black Watch” is exciting both theatrically and dramatically. There is a visceral quality to the production, with the exploding bombs and flashing strobe lights, that vividly approximates the tumult and confusion of the battlefield. The evening concludes with an extended and wordless drill exercise that replicates the pride of the regiment and the dangers of fighting a skilled enemy who doesn’t play by Western rules. The movements are superbly choreographed by associate director Steven Hoggett. Even though I wasn’t exactly certain what was going on at times, by the end of the scene I choked up.
The choice of the Broadway Armory is both a blessing and a curse. The facility lends an air of authenticity to the action but the acoustics are terrible. The combination of the cast’s thick Scottish brogue and the reverb and low fidelity of the sound system in the vast interior made much of the dialogue unintelligible, though apparently some spectators had less trouble hearing and understanding than I did.
“Black Watch” should have special resonance for American audiences, the Iraq war being part of our national emotional life for almost a decade. This is an anti-war play to some extent, but it’s also about pride in a military tradition and friendship under fire.
Problems with the sound aside, “Black Watch” is stirring, occasionally humorous, sometimes informative, and always visually arresting. All the performances disarm criticism. It’s impossible to envision this staging performed any different, or any better. The heroic cast consists of Jack Lowden, Richard Rankin, Ross Anderson, Chris Starkie, Cameron Barnes, Stuart Martin, Paul Higgins, Jamie Quinn, Scott Fletcher, and Ian Pirie. Individually and collectively they earn the viewer’s admiration and gratitude.
“Black Watch” runs through April 10 at the Broadway Armory, 5917 North Broadway. Tickets are $38 to $45. For performance times, call 312 595 5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com/blackwatch. March 2011
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