Black Watch (4 stars)

  • 7 August 2006

This article is from 2006

For an enthralling moment or two, I felt his shade near me, and was stronger for it. The greatest of all Scottish theatre practitioners, the late John McGrath was with the audience in this brilliant showpiece of epic theatre, which I suppose we shouldn’t call Brechtian in case folks don’t go. But the heyday of 7:84, which was, according to so many 80s and 90s PoMo critics dull and worthy (I only remember pissing myself and thinking how clever it was) seemed back with a vengeance, both aesthetically, and to some extent politically, in John Tiffany’s production of Gregory Burke’s new piece.

In it, we meet a group of former squaddies recalling their experiences at Camp Dogwood to a television documentary researcher. With the inspired use of a pub pool table, which becomes a birthing mechanism for soldiers, an armoured car and more during the piece, we are then given a history which pertains as much to the lives of soldiers past as the group we see at the up. There’s an unbreakable bond between these young men, a community more complex than the usual throw away clichés about soldiers and working class life. Disturbingly, as well, we’re told something about the link between violence and disempowerment.

Tiffany directs Burke’s script - a splendid, rumbunctiously humorous, moving and insightful affair - with real verve. If perhaps one or two pieces of physical theatre don’t feel quite as organic to a text than the majority, it seems harsh to quibble. For Tiffany shows the kind of theatrical nous and showmanship in his use of multimedia and movement that won’t often be seen this festival. There is, in Burke’s text, an interrogation of the objectives and nature of the current wars we’re engaged in that is more powerful for the authenticity of the characters asking the questions. What is most gratifying of all is to see the representation of a community living within its history, rather than the usual ideologically inspired denial of history. This comes partially from the bits of regimental tradition that are shown to us; there is a thumbnail sketch of Lord Elgin, a great war recruiter for the regiment, and a fully costumed run through of the history which would make any audience fall about. But, more importantly, there’s a sense in which living people as you read this are organically part of history and community, and can’t repress this, whatever they’re taught. The performance of a large cast in ensemble is splendid, as tight and disciplined as the soldiers represented - it seems invidious in the circumstances to pull individuals from the ranks, though Brian Ferguson’s bawdy, baffled narrator is truly first class.
(Steve Cramer)

Traverse 4, University of Edinburgh Drill Hall, 228 1404, until 27 Aug (not 14, 21), 8.30pm, £15 (£4.50-£10).

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