Sunday, September 23, 2012

Fortune of Soldiers

Americans were not the only ones serving in Iraq.

It's a fairly obvious observation, but one that I don't recall being much considered during the darkest days of that endless war. True, we often spoke of our faithful allies, the British, but even that term 'British' itself is an elision. For, as writer Gregory Burke notes in the program for Black Watch, imported for the second time from the National Theatre of Scotland by the Shakespeare Theatre Company, "Scotland has always provided a percentage of the British Army that is disproportionate to its population size." The only time I recall Scotland entering the Iraq conversation was the public dispute between a belligerent Christopher Hitchens and Scottish MP and Saddam Hussein apologist George Galloway.

We did not think much about Scotland, much less its military class, in the context of Iraq, but they thought about Iraq, and us, at considerable length. So we find in Black Watch, an exploration of the play's namesake, a famed Scottish infantry battalion, and the outsized role it played in Iraq. The play, directed by John Tiffany, is a marvel of performance and technical skill and shows a critical moment in time from an unusual perspective. Yet a crucial component is missing: the play's original audience, without which something has been lost in translation.

The play's story moves on two tracks--an unnamed writer, ostensibly Burke, interviewing the men of the Black Watch, and the stories they tell him, of daily life and daily death in Iraq. Interspersed among the interviews and vignettes are found objects of the war: a debate between two Scottish MPs; letters from an officer to his significant other; Scottish traditionals and military tattoos. Over time the team's rude banter and idle foolery gives way to frayed nerves and boiling anger as they are worn down as much by relentless shelling and suicide bombers as by the government's decision to fold the Black Watch in with other independent regiments into a single unit.

With the exception of the lights and sound, which work in tandem to create the deafening and blinding explosions characteristic of post-Saddam Iraq, the show's technical approach is deceptively simple. The Sydney Harmon Hall's proscenium arch has been reconfigured into a stadium-styled seating that requires much of the audience to cross the stage, where they must remain until the end of the performance (the show runs a fleet two hours with no intermission). At one end of the stage is strung a curtain that triples as both projection screen and scrim, and on the other end is a hefty door. A rough frame on either side allows certain moments to be played from elevated heights. Set pieces were otherwise minimal, though a great deal of mileage is made with a mobile pool table. The costuming is authentic, both in the Watch's military garb and in their easygoing civilian pub-wear. The swift action is realized by a helping dose of misdirection so that new business is constantly materializing right under the audience's noses.

No single actor stands out among the ensemble cast, as it should be in a piece about a military unit. A few, though, are given greater prominence, particularly Robert Jack, pulling double duty as the timid writer and an abrasive Sergeant, and Ryan Fletcher, as the team's de facto leader Cammy. What most impresses about the cast is the lived-in quality of their characterizations, moving with both a young, hangdog masculine swagger and military precision. Their dialects can occasionally be difficult for the American ear to untangle, but their sheer physicality does a lot of the necessary communication for them.

And there is much to communicate. The play offers some unusual perspectives, particularly for an American audience. The Watch views us, for instance, with a mixture of appallation and admiration at our overwhelming military superiority. So goes an exchange during a four hour bombing campaign:
"This is nay fucking fighting. This is just plain old-fashioned bullying like. 
"It’s good fun, though." 
"Do you think?"

"Aye. It’s good to be the bully."
There is too the realization that ours was far from the only nation that relaxed the standards of admission to its volunteer army in order to fully staff its ranks. Late in the play we learn that one of the characters was diagnosed depressive after his first tour and should never have even been in Iraq a second time, but all that pesky medical paperwork just happened to get lost when the military needed warm bodies.

Still, or all it has to recommend it, particularly in universal moments like these, I couldn't help but feel at some remove from the play as a whole. Theatre is a live event, with each production, to say nothing of each performance, born of given circumstances. All shows are particular, but some are more particular than others. Black Watch, both the play and this iteration of it, are very much artifacts of mid-2000s Scotland, a nation the size of South Carolina with the population of Colorado. Nor is it just a play by Scotland, but of Scotland for Scotland. The show began life as a National Theatre of Scotland production at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in an old drill hall and is saturated in a cultural shorthand--not just the dialects, but the politicians, the songs, the Black Watch itself--that could be taken for granted to forge a bond between performers and the audience that is at the heart of a live experience. Transplanting the play to one of the fanciest venues of the most powerful city in the world robs it of both its physical and cultural intimacy.

There's nothing wrong with the show. But without that full connection to the audience, it can't but feel slightly rote. All theatre, all theatre that matters, is local, and so it goes with Black Watch. As was said of another disastrous American military venture, "You weren't there, man."

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