'Black Watch' Reveals War is Hellish, and Aesthetically Dynamic

Scottish bagpipes, Scottish song, bonnets and kilts appear out of place on a battlefield in Fallujah where war is fought with 21st-century assault weapons and high tech artillery. In Black Watch, the acclaimed theater work from The National Theatre of Scotland, the Scottish infantrymen themselves seem misplaced; they are fighting in America's ill-conceived war in Iraq.

The striking production, directed by John Tiffany (who recently won the Tony Award for the acclaimed Broadway musical Once) has been performed worldwide and garnered many awards. In San Francisco, it is staged inside the Armory Community Center on the Mission's 14th Street.

Scotland's Royal Highland Regiment -- known as the Black Watch, has a venerated military history that dates back to early 1700s. The Armory, a castle-like fortress built in the Moorish revival style, was constructed in the early 20th century for the United States National Guard. Both the play's subject and its environment carry the ghosts of past wars, underscoring the inevitability and persistence of conflict. With stadium seating rising up on two sides of the expansive stage, the surroundings also evoke an arena where gladiators perform deadly spectacles.

Under John Tiffany's direction, the production is indeed a spectacle. But this is not a limb-by-limb close-up of dashing brave action figures firing hot-shot sniper rifles against a backdrop of fire and smoke. This war story is a poetic, impressionistic experience where choreographed masculinity and physical eloquence coexist with pugnacious, aggressive, crude, and bawdy dialogue. Intimate relationships are forged through dirty-minded vulgarities, chest-beating, and hair-trigger belligerence.

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The theater piece takes us from a pub in Fife to Fallujah where eight soldiers confront the post-9/11 realities of suicide bombers, improvised explosives, terrorist tactics and their own third-party role in an unpopular war. The play's script is perhaps its least exciting, least innovative part. The story was assembled from interviews with Black Watch infantrymen and employs the overused device of sitting a reporter at a table to question his subjects, probe the facts, gain their trust, and uncover their psychology. Playwright Gregory Burke's interviews are recreated by Robert Jack, who plays the intimidated wuss. He buys the men drinks to keep them talking and hopes he won't get beaten up. Further exposition comes from the brigade's officer (Stephen McCole) and his emails home. They dryly explain that, in 2004, this battalion is stationed in what is called the triangle of death.

Stuart Martin, Cameron Barnes, Benjamin Davies, Scott Fletcher, Andrew Fraser, Adam McNamara, Richard Rankin, and Gavin Jon Wright play the other infantrymen who talk non-stop about sex and start fights in the bar. The bar room's pool table becomes an armored tank, where they live together, talking about meals to pass the time.

At its most thrilling, the production detours from realism and shows battle scenes of muscular dance where soldier engage in mano-a-mano pas de deux. They wrestle and tumble and toss one another in stunning, graceful synchronicity. Steven Hoggett and Vicki Manderson's movement design is breathtaking and profound.

Through interviews, the soldiers explain why they enlisted. Their prospects in their working class home towns are slim and depressing. Where else do you get to fire 20,000 quid machinery? "Guns are f-in' magic," says a recruit. And of course, soldiers come home and get lots of fanny. For still others, like Cammy, powerfully portrayed by Stuart Martin, the Black Watch is a long family tradition.

In one of the most delightful scenes, a specter from the past comes forward to tell the men about the noble tradition of the Black Watch. To illustrate the eras, the ancestor Lord Elgin narrates a fashion show of tartans, waistcoats, plumage, and the signature red hackle on the tam-o'-shanter. With expert precision, the men assist Cammy in a series of graceful quick-changes as he displays military garb from the times of King George II to contemporary fatigues.

The Black Watch is a brigade steeped in a tradition of gallantry and valor, but the men are well aware that their part in the War on Terror leaves no chance of victory. "It took three hundred years to build an army's reputation and only two years in Iraq to ruin it," one soldier observes.

The Black Watch runs through June 16, 2013 at the Armory Community Center in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit act-sf.org

All photos by Scott Suchman.

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