Theatre Review: Black Watch
RUSI Journal, Oct 2006, Vol. 151, No. 5
By Owen Humphrys
A National Theatre of Scotland production Written by Gregory Burke
Directed by John Tiffany Currently touring Scotland and coming to London in 2007
‘I hope the Government knows what they have got us into’, wrote the Commanding Officer of 1BW (The Black Watch) in Iraq to his wife at home. It was the autumn of 2004, and his e-mail was intercepted and published by the press. In the National Theatre of Scotland’s play Black Watch, written by Gregory Burke, the Lt Colonel's letters home feature three times. Unsurprisingly, he also gives his opinion that the Ministry of Defence's timing for regimental amalgamations was ‘bizarre’.
But the play is not primarily about officers or politicians. It is about eight soldiers, a section – the crew of a single Warrior AFV (armoured fighting vehicle). Even the Sergeant plays a secondary role.
The play opens in a disused drill hall. The setting in Edinburgh is superb. Cut into the vehicle entrance of the hall is the door of the Warrior. The rest was scaffolding, whose temporary nature well mirrors the life and working conditions of a battalion on ‘expeditionary warfare’. Its bleakness could be Camp Dogwood; or a bit of barren Iraqi desert; or even the inside of a pub in one of the hardman areas of Fife – where the Black Watch does much of its recruiting.
The key prop was a pool-table, the small size that fits in a pub's back room. It doubled as a Warrior. Imagine five flak-jacketed men sweating inside one in the heat of Iraq, sweating without even moving’, as one of them says. Imagine the long hours spent inside one, waiting for help after one AFV is disabled. Or much worse: waiting, as it turns out, for another and more lethal attack.
There is time to get bored, and to play the game of ‘What will you eat first when you get home? An Indian, a sweet and sour, or a cheese piece?’ The man who says cheese gets stick from the others. Typical of any section of eight in Iraq, then. Three of them die. (The interpreter died, too; and
there are plenty of uncounted Iraqi dead.)
It is dramatic stuff, with live action – the antithesis of, for example, David Hare's recent play on the Iraq War, Stuff Happens, which is all about war planning, and men in suits. And this is no ‘Wars of the Roses at Stratford-on-Avon’, with macho actors strutting their stuff in leather, trying to look medieval. This happened yesterday.
The widows in Fife are still hurting. The mothers who lost sons still lie awake through many long nights of sadness and grief. Any good Regimental soldier will know the real names of these dead men: Sgt Stuart Gray, Pte Scott McArdle, and Pte Paul Lowe. They died on 4 November 2004.
Their deaths were front page news stories at the time.
Death in battle is always dramatic, as Shakespeare knew; but this play had other equally powerful themes, about power, and ‘bullying’. Not bullying of the Deepcut sort, but bullying of the Iraqi people – for that is how one of the soldiers describes it. And this bullying and invading is linked to overkill: ‘£17,000 of Milan missile fired at a donkey cart’; and to the American aerial bombardment of Falluja, which cost huge sums of money.
Another theme is Regimental history; how men are recruited (and were recruited in the First World War – ‘The Somme's beautiful this time of year’); and why men stay – or leave. The writer of Black Watch, Gregory Burke, got his material first-hand by interviewing soldiers who left. Hence the play's secondary title, ‘An Unofficial Biography of a Regiment’.
Towards the end of the play, one good soldier says, ‘I'm out of the Army’. The Colonel tries to dissuade him, the Regiment needs you.We had you down for a CSM [Company Sgt
The whole spectrum of reasons for joining, for leaving, for staying – they are all encapsulated here in the language of the soldiers themselves. This is no anti-war agit-prop.
Playgoers looking for Oh what a Lovely War and ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ will disappointed. This play, commissioned by the newly-created National Theatre of Scotland, has a depth of human knowledge and fellow feeling that makes it both real and contemporary.
One key motif of the production the importance of having a piece paper in army life. You can get out irksome duties, or out of trouble, having and showing a piece of paper. You can also become a family man again, with a ‘bluey’ in your ands, however many miles you are from home. It is also possible to rewrite bit of history, if you manage to ‘lose the paperwork’. (A Prime Minister also get a Resolution for war through the Commons if he can claim to have an important bit of paper in his possession.)
No politician gets an easy ride this play. Like everyone else, they suffer when the gallows humour kicks in amongst soldiers at the sharp end. The embedded journalists also come in for a bit of flak, and for deception: Running as a red thread of courage’ through the play is the Black
Watch's ever-famous and exclusive red hackle. The Watch's pipe-tunes and their songs are used, and adapted, from the ‘Black Bear’ to ‘[en]list bonnie laddie and come away' wi' me’. And in one five-minute scene, three centuries of Black Watch history are played out on a red carpet that is rolled out down the drill hall. One soldier is kitted out successively in the garb of 1739, the uniform of Waterloo and the kilt apron of the trenches in 1915. It is a magical moment for anyone who has ever taught regimental history to his platoon.
Red carpet, red hackle, red thread of Battle Honours: these all add up to the local pride that is so much more than the trite ‘golden thread’ that a timorous Army Board promised to retain. In an echo of Admiral Cunningham's famous phrase at the time of Crete in 1941, Burke has one soldier say, ‘it takes 300 years to build an army, and 3 years to eff it up completely’.
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Further Analysis: Scottish Defence and Security Policy, UK Defence