Like the martial bagpipe solo that heralds its finale, “Black Watch” doesn’t really resemble any of the things you’d use to explain it by way of comparison. It’s both a hymn to soldiers and an indictment of the foolishness that makes their jobs necessary, shot through with odd, affecting grace notes of music and dance. And beneath it all, the low, unmistakably Scottish hum that signals an inescapable call to duty.
Gregory Burke’s play starts conventionally enough: A young man named Cammy (Paul Rattray) enters the stage, explains that he’d rather not be telling us this story, and leads us in to his interview with the Writer (Paul Higgins) in a bar speedily assembled and populated by his pals from the Black Watch — Scotland’s answer to the SEALS or the Green Berets. The interview starts and the expected flashback begins, as two soldiers burst onto Laura Hopkins’ brilliantly mutable set after lying undetected through the whole first scene.
The entrance is the first good surprise in “Black Watch,” but not nearly the best. The play jumps back and forth between the bar interview in Scotland and the men’s days in Iraq, where 800 of them were deployed to replace 4,000 Marines. Along the way, it breaks down into several of director John Tiffany’s athletic dance and movement segments, the most impressive of which involves Cammy recounting the history of the Scottish armed forces as he’s spun like a rifle during a parade drill — all while being dressed, undressed and redressed in progressively more modern military uniforms by his unit, starting with the very first kilt and sash the Black Watchmen wore.
The young men enacting this and other acrobatic scenes grow on us over the course of the play; Burke knows the cadences of lower-class Scottish wit well enough to use them to draw us in, rather than dressing up arguments in country dialect. Along with this essential honesty, the chest-thumping, angrily masculine music and dance keep us intrigued. By presenting us with impressions rather than arguments, Burke and company don’t reduce the play’s complex problems to dramatically convenient platitudes or somnolent preaching.
“I think people’s minds are usually made up about you if you were in the army,” Cammy frankly accuses. It’s not, as he explains, a matter of being exploited by callous politicians or having no way out because you’re poor. It’s a matter of personal and national honor, and neither he nor anyone in his unit likes being condescended to by wealthy liberals. They want to be in the army. They’re proud of it.
That’s not an attitude exclusive to the Scottish, which is perhaps why this play speaks so affectingly to an American audience. The sadness that underscores every scene comes from the knowledge that the battles have been picked by venal politicians who couldn’t care less about the best interests of the soldiers fighting them — Scottish Watchman or American Marine. It’s a knowledge that slowly dawns on the men, not all of whom survive their pointless deployment.
“Black Watch” offers hope, but it’s a hope both difficult and complex. Perhaps it’s best exemplified by that climactic, closing bagpipe dance, in which the men run, fight, collapse and bear one another up against the encroaching darkness.