Archive for December 3rd, 2010

Review – Black Watch – National Theatre of Scotland at the Barbican (2010)

December 3, 2010

One of my theatrical regrets of 2008 was missing Black Watch, the enthusiastically reviewed National Theater of Scotland’s production about Scottish soldiers in Iraq. I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing a war play – too often theater on modern themes winds up being nauseatingly moralistic, and I thought this production might also suffer from being mawkish. Still, I was put off by the high prices, then the “sold out” notices made it impossible to get a ticket. I thought I had a reprieve when the show was moved to New York in perfect timing for a family trip, but $100 tickets wound up being even more than the Barbican! I gave up; it was not to be.

That is, until the Barbican’s fall 2010 season was announced, and there it was again: critical favorite Black Watch. The tickets were still way over what I like to pay (I’m more of a 15 gal, these were 32 even with my member’s discount), but I choked down my “I could see two shows for this” feelings and forked it over … then waited two months for the show.

I’m not really sure what else there is to say about this show that hasn’t been said elsewhere: the trope is guys from a Scottish regiment being interviewed about life as soldiers and in Iraq, with the story flipping beteween scenes of them being interviewed after they’ve returned to Scotland, illustrations of them talking about what they are showing rather like in a graphic novel (in particular, the regiment’s history and how it got its uniform), and them just basically living their lives as soldiers, hiding out in their quarters, talking to the press, making jokes as they go on patrol, et cetera. The “life as lived” clearly seems to mostly follow a forward narrative that explains how a group of 6 men in a bar lost half their number after an ambush; it comes as no surprise that it will happen and to whom it will happen. To be honest the deaths, the lives of the victims, and the actual death scene were in no way sentimental, to my relief. It is war and soldiers die in it, and it is not about them being good, or having connections at home, or being bad (and “deserving” their deaths); all of the guys knew they had signed up for a job in which death was a likely component, and all of them seemed very practical about this. In some ways, it seemed to inform a bit of their hysteria and excess of living in most of the show, and that edge was probably part of the reason they joined up, because fighting, killing and living a dangerous life is a real high. The show is mostly just about what a soldier’s life is like, with a specificity to a particular war enabling the surrounding politics and conditions on the ground to be brought into play, to illustrate what they men were dealing with; and, to my pleasure, the text of the play freely acknowledged this was a “controversial” war … one that in two years ruined a fighting force that had taken 300 years to build.

While the energy of the cast was very high (and the sound painfully loud for both mortar shelling and musical interludes), I’m afraid I found this show … well, a bit canned. It’s so tightly choreographed that there seems to be no room for play or improvisation. I truly bought the cast members in their roles and had a hard time remembering that they were just as likely to be gay as well as the hypermacho straight men they were playing, but … I couldn’t connect with it. It was done as a bit of theatrical reportage, and I responded to it unemotionally. I was shocked to hear that this was a completely new cast from the one that had toured before, as they seemed to be tired, or just lack the engagement I would like to see. Perhaps this is due to them having fairly recently arrived at the Barbican, or perhaps the forty empty seats that greeted them proved dispiriting (the snow kept many folks away, it seemed). I can’t say one way or another, but I’m sorry to say that this just wasn’t the “must see” theater I was hoping for. Perhaps you will have better luck.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, December 1st, 2010. It continues through January 22nd, 2011. Running time is less that 2 hours so it is an ideal play for a school night.)