The runaway hit of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a vibrant piece of verbatim theater that celebrates the lives of the soldiers of the ancient Scottish Black Watch regiment who served in Iraq. Largely sidestepping the debate about the rights and wrongs of military action, it puts the experience of the ordinary, working-class soldier centerstage to create a performance that is hard-headed yet tender, open-minded yet polemical, particular yet universal.
Such has been the popular and critical acclaim for the production — the first visit to the Fringe by the new National Theater of Scotland — that national and international tours seem inevitable. But don’t expect it to show up at conventional playhouses. In keeping with the theme of the play, helmer John Tiffany is staging “Black Watch” in a cavernous former drill hall, with the audience on two opposing seating banks and the action taking place in between. Any tour will have to visit similar buildings to have the same effect.
NTS’ associate director of new work, Tiffany, uses the scale of the space brilliantly. The action seamlessly cuts from a Fife pub — where a playwright (Paul Higgins) nervously approaches the ex-soldiers to gather material — to Camp Dogwood, Iraq, where we see the regiment relieving U.S. forces in 2004, its last great challenge before being amalgamated into the Royal Regiment of Scotland.
Freed from the literalness of a realistic set, Tiffany sets his actors loose across the whole wide area, spreading them out in moments of animosity, huddling them together when the pressure is on. He juxtaposes scenes of foul-mouthed bravado with poignant dance sequences, such as a heartbreaking evocation of the troops reading their letters from home. He lets us see the intensity of war by means of explosions and video footage projected onto the gantries on either side of the playing space, as well as the rare intimate moments when the soldiers reveal their true feelings about the fear and ferocity of battle.
The script by Gregory Burke is pieced together from transcripts of interviews with soldiers, their officers and the occasional broadcast from politicians. The focal point is Cammy, superbly played by Brian Ferguson, who comes across as the wisest, most philosophical of the troops — the most articulate about what he sees as the bullying tactics of the allied forces against Iraqi citizens — without pandering to a liberal-left agenda.
Much of the play’s political sophistication lies in its refusal either to glamorize the soldiers or to present them as ignorant cannon fodder. They are fighters, fueled by testosterone and as prone to bursts of violence against each other as the enemy. Yet by letting their voices be heard, giving expression to the extreme experiences of military life, showing their gallows humor and their camaraderie, Burke makes us love and respect them.
You could accuse him of overlooking less-savory aspects of the regiment’s history, but his purpose is not to give a balanced view like some evenhanded television documentary. Rather, he allows us to share in an unsung aspect of working-class experience and — most radical of all — to make us see their world with fresh eyes.