The National Theatre of Scotland’s acclaimed production runs through this weekend.
How It’s New York: New Yorkers took it to heart when it first played here in 2007; it returns with a new cast of recruits. It’s at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn and there’s no intermission and yet it regularly sells out, which demonstrates how much New Yorkers love it.
How It’s Irish: It’s Scottish.
Playwright Gregory Burke and actor Adam McNamara are on this week’s podcast.
It’s hard to describe this play, written by Burke and directed by John Tiffany. To say it’s a history of the Scottish Army regiment known as the Black Watch and their time in Iraq doesn’t do it justice– it’s also a look at life and death from a soldier’s point of view, and from that of a writer trying to find out about them. A journalist interviews soldiers at home in Fife, and we also see these soldiers in Fallujah. They are bored, homesick, scared, cheeky, and confused. And brave.
The show mixes video, song and movement too. Adam told me when we spoke that he has had former soldiers compliment the cast on their drilling– which is pretty high praise. Don’t be put off by thinking this is another “aren’t we guilty” play– it’s much, much more than that. In some ways it may seem to be an anti-war play, but it also shows the beauty of the bond the soldiers share. The Regiment is an old and proud one– or was. It was disbanded during the war and that act created a lot of controversy in Scotland. It was always sort of a mercenary unit, too, which makes its history somehow all the more poignant.
I have to say I love the National Theatre of Scotland, which is a theatre without a stone building (“stone theatres” in Czech mean something ossified and stale. It works!) As a result they create site-specific work, and tour, and support young theatre companies like New York’s The Team. It’s hard to imagine a show like Black Watch without a company to support it. The writing feels natural and sharp, but what you see on stage is more than writing and acting; it’s highly collaborative and even somehow stream of conscious. There are interviews, sound clips and much more on their site.
I saw the show in 2007 but wanted to see it again before I spoke to Burke and McNamara. And I’m glad I did– I had forgotten the stunning sequence in which Cammy (Jack Lowden) goes over the history of the Regiment while his uniform changes. Other soldiers dress and undress him, and he never misses a beat. It’s a stunning piece of choreogreaphy that also informs and delights. It’s brilliant theatre.
Yes, there is death– but the show sets it up so that it’s not done for shock value. You know it’s coming and you know who it will be and yet it’s still terrible. Tiffany shows the actors hanging in the air– an image as good as any I’ve ever seen for the instant loss of a person.
The music used in the show is traditional, arranged by Davey Anderson. There are songs in Scots Gaelic as well.
Gregory Burke writes:
There is a pride in scotland, romanticised perhaps, but a pride nonetheless, about our military traditions. Scotland has always provided a percentage of the British Army that is disproportionate to its population’s size. Where does this martial culture sit alongside the shorbread tin version of the Highlands, or the socialist glory of the former industrial areas? What is the enduring appeal of regiments like the Black Watch?
And that’s what this show takes on. To do that it has to use those Scottish traditions, including the longstanding tradition of tricking soldiers to recruit (I loved a scene in which Lord Elgin, played by Ian Pirie, goads drunken youths to enlist in World War I with the sowrd of Robert the Bruce and promises of an easy time in the South of France) Though part of its success may rely on the interest we all have in the Iraq war, it’s not about that. There are no Iraqis in the play, nor should there be. There are young boys looking at porn, dreaming of food they will eat when they get home, griping about the big fat American soldiers with their excellent cots, and, when it comes down to it, fighting and dying in a line. When the shout comes towards the end “Forward the Forty-Second” it’s thrilling. Terrifying, but exciting; sad, but uplifting.
Like this show.
From the Press Notes:
Susan Feldman, Artistic Director of St. Ann’s Warehouse, which has presented the show twice (in 2007 and 2008), felt the show’s visceral power as strongly as ever when she saw it in Washington, DC in January 2011. Since St. Ann’s had a three-week opening in April just as the show would be concluding its current world tour, she decided to invite the National Theatre of Scotland production back for a limited run.
Ms. Feldman explained, “It is important to remember the soldiers just as our troops are returning home in July, and Black Watch paints their emotional landscape with deep empathy. The youthfulness of the new recruits, like the real soldiers the actors are portraying, lends a heart breaking, fresh realism to the show, which, six years after its premiere in Edinburgh, has become a modern classic.”
When St. Ann’s presented the New York premiere of Black Watch in Fall 2007, the show topped numerous critics’ year-end top ten lists. The run sold over 100% capacity, requiring St. Ann’s to turn away many people the presenters hoped would see the production. Black Watch returned—and was extended—in the fall of 2008, selling out again and garnering even more critical accolades. In total, 32,000 people saw Black Watch at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2007 and 2008, after which the National Theatre of Scotland retired the production for two years.
St. Ann’s Warehouse is the only theater in New York that can physically accommodate Black Watch, which requires a vast, open space that can be configured to represent an esplanade, with the audience seated on risers along both sides. St. Ann’s, one of the smallest venues Black Watch has played, provides audiences with a singularly intimate experience of the drama.
About the National Theatre of Scotland
Since its launch in February 2006, the National Theatre of Scotland has been involved in creating 137 productions in 125 different locations. With no building of its own, the company takes theater all over Scotland and beyond, working with existing and new venues and companies to create and tour theatre of the highest quality. It takes place in the great buildings of Scotland, but also in site-specific locations, airports and tower blocks, community halls and drill halls, ferries and forests. The company has performed to over 600,000 people, across three continents.
Performances will take place Tuesday—Saturday throughout the run at 8:00 P.M. Matinees will be held Sundays throughout the run at 2:00 P.M. and on Saturday, May 7 at 2:00 P.M. There is no evening performance on Sunday, May 8.
Tickets are $55—$90 and are available online at www.stannswarehouse.org and by phone at 718.254.8779 (Tuesday—Saturday, 1:00 P.M.—7:00 P.M.) or 866.811.4111 (extended hours Monday—Friday, 9:00 A.M.—9:00 P.M.; Saturday and Sunday, 10:00 A.M.—6:00 P.M.). Tickets can also be purchased at the St. Ann’s Warehouse Box Office at 38 Water Street Tuesday—Saturday, 1:00 P.M.—7:00 P.M.