“The “Golden Thread” connecting three centuries of service by Scotland’s famed, red-cockaded Black Watch Regiment was snapped, many feel, by ill-considered Iraq War duty and Britain’s 2004 decision to merge all units into one super-regiment. Vets’ testimony led to a National Theater of Scotland scripted pageant that has marched confidently from the Edinburgh Festival onto the UCLA campus as part of a world tour. Shifting fluidly among three distinct levels of theatrical representation, “Black Watch” at its best is a stinging and often heartwrenching primer on the hearts and minds of soldiers today and, by extension, throughout history.
Militarists will bristle at the antiwar sentiment and contempt for feckless politicians tossed around casually by officers and enlistees alike. Iraq War opponents and peaceniks may be galled by the unapologetic pride in the regiment’s historical involvement in global military misadventures, and everyone can be put off by the nonstop torrent of profanity, racism and sexism that passes for everyday discourse in this man’s army.
But if we’re to credit these witnesses, we can’t just embrace the testimony we favor. Beyond its insights into the military machine, “Black Watch” invites the question of what “supporting the troops” means, and whether one can separate the troops from their mission.
Directly paralleling playwright Gregory Burke’s research, a nervous writer (Paul Higgins) ventures into a Firth saloon to interview surviving members of a squad that backed up the U.S. assault on Fallouja. Won over by an open bar, the men subtly continue to work as a seamless unit whether playing pool or teasing the civilian wanker, freely joking about life pre- and post-Iraq but slow to open up about life in the “Triangle of Death.”
These scenes — each ingeniously reconfigured by helmer John Tiffany to reflect the interview’s evolving dynamic — reveal enlistees’ eagerness to become part of a national tradition, contributing to our and their discomfort when that tradition is disgraced in the desert
Battlefield flashbacks serve as the show’s second theatrical realm. Inches from our faces, superbly staged combat sequences supported by Colin Grenfell’s exploding effects and haunting side lighting, and Gareth Fry’s approaching bomber sound effects, build realism to rival any war movie. (The lads say the film should be titled “Sweating Without Moving.”) Tiffany sets the audience in two groups facing each other, enhancing hyperawareness of war’s horror, heat and boredom.
Grim reality is offset by moments of sharp comedy that wouldn’t be out of place in “MASH,” reinforcing the squad’s camaraderie.
Periodic ventures into patently metaphorical territory are the show’s third and riskiest mode. Black Watch history is dazzlingly detailed as narrator Cammy (Paul Rattray) — more or less show’s principal character — is literally tossed along a red carpet from 1743 to Waterloo to World War I, dressed and undressed accordingly. Rattray also figures in a clever enlistment pantomime, a song and Highland fling bringing him tentatively and then triumphantly into the corps.
On the other hand, the effect of anguished mimed reactions to letters from home is muted by how long it takes all 10 letters to reach their recipients. And two quarreling grunts’ brief timeout that becomes a protracted full-cast, slo-mo brawl doesn’t work at all. Allowing the pent-up tension to release prematurely is dramatically unwise, and resemblance to a Jerome Robbins gang routine acts as an unwelcome reminder that these are, after all, just actors.
There’s less bravura but more emotional impact in a barroom scene in which questions about combat deaths send disturbed Stewarty (Ali Craig) into a murderous rage, one of several reminders that it’s in the particular that one usually locates the general, not vice versa.
But the finale works on every level, depicting an indomitable military unit that has always bounced back from adversity, albeit at horrendous cost.