Staging War: Impact & Aftermath – 2nd Devastating Portrait, BLACK WATCH

Newcomers to the DC theater scene are in the throes of getting pummeled, transported, assaulted, moved, sickened, challenged, inspired, and just plain moved by the dyad of war plays theatricalizing the experience of soldiers (both American and British) during the Iraq war. Last week, we took in BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO at Round House Theater. Last night we saw BLACK WATCH, the harrowing, all-immersing spectacle produced by The National Theatre of Scotland at The Shakespeare Company’s Harmon Hall.

These two ensemble-driven shows, using vastly different theatrical techniques, once again make me so proud and excited to be incubating the hugely explosive and devastating ensemble piece, OUR CLASS, which we’re rehearsing at the J, and writing about elsewhere on this blog. Again, we’re witnessing the run up to war, the enactment of horrific brutality, and the wrenching aspects of Aftermath — in each case, the profoundly unsettling portraits of post-traumatic stress disorder. TIGER, BLACK WATCH, and OUR CLASS are offering case studies in the different ways enactors of war are haunted by their deeeds. In the case of the American and British/Scot forces who comprise a part of “The Coalition of the Willing,” we’re seeing soldiers carrying out orders with an unclear sense of what exactly they’re setting out to accomplish. In the case of OUR CLASS, well, you’ll soon see what motivates ordinary Polish citizens to take the fate of their fellow Jews into their own hands.  In either case, it’s deeply unsettling.

There are certainly theater-goers who are being rubbed the wrong way by the brutal portraits we’re seeing. Some are finding the portraiture of American servicemen to be disrespectful. We’ve been reading, of course, about the language. Let’s begin an even more honest discussion and debate right now about what we’re seeing, and our honest, gut reactions to the portraits. And then let’s also consider the general value, function, and artfulness of the theater that’s bringing us the essentialized portraits of war so vividly.

Comment away, one and all!

15 thoughts on “Staging War: Impact & Aftermath – 2nd Devastating Portrait, BLACK WATCH

  1. I am glad you mention the language because again in Black Watch, right away you get the Scottish servicemen cursing. Personally, I do not find the f-bomb jarring at all in the context of both Black Watch and last week, Tiger. However, the thing that did throw me off this week was the constant use of the word “cunt.” I am assuming this is holds different connotations in the culture of Scotland because in my experience in the U.S., it has been one of the rarer and more offensive curse words. It definitely packs a punch, more so than other words, when it is used here. However, it was said so frequently throughout Black Watch that by the end I was desensitized.

    This was definitely my favorite play we have seen so far in terms of staging. I absolutely loved all the choreography, the music and of course, at the end when the two members of Black Watch are killed by a suicide bombers and they hang on harnesses from the scaffolding. It was absolutely fantastic and bought a lot to the show. However, it also seemed to frequently trump a real concrete look into the characters. Perhaps it was because Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was extraordinarily philosophical, I was expecting more depth of searching about the meaning of life in war. I think the play resulted in a portrait of the experiences of the Black Watch in Iraq and it did a great job contextualizing their time in Iraq in the larger history of Scotland’s armed forces (again with truly phenomenal staging and choreography that must have taken hours of rehearsal to master). However, I didn’t feel at the end that there was a strong linear story line and I didn’t honestly know every character’s name or background to the extent that I am used to after plays. Perhaps this is due to a purposeful representation of camaraderie over individuality in the Black Watch, my own trouble understanding thick Scottish accents for two years, my unfair comparison of the two plays or, more likely, a mixture of the those.

    On a more personal note, I did The Laramie Project while I was in high school and noted a lot of parallels between the styles of plays. Both deal with highly emotional subject matters and feature the playwright as a character in the play, conducting interviews to write a script based entirely on things that actually happened. I loved reading the Writer and Director notes in program. Additionally, Black Watch used music by Yann Tiersen in their sequence where the soldiers were receiving medals, and in our production of the Laramie Project, we used a different song by Yann Tiersen during the epilogue written by my director to mark the 10 year anniversary of Matthew Shepherd’s death (this was prior to when the Tectonic Theater Project came out with their own). I loved being reminded during Black Watch of a great production and I think it gives me an extended respsect for the actors involved because I know what it was like having to carry the burden of knowing you are playing a real person. Properly relaying someone else’s real-life experiences to an audience is no easy task but I think the acting, as well as the staging and choreography, did an excellent job and I really enjoyed the production.

    • so glad you brought in your own personal experience of doing the LARAMIE PROJECT, and pointed to the common motif of having a playwright in scenes to show how the story/play we are currently watching was pieced together through interviews, and the drama of collecting those interviews… It’s a fascinating story-telling conceit.

  2. For the second week in a row, I have left the theater with a strong sense of the message of the play I have seen, but rather disturbed by the content. The National Theatre of Scotland’s “Black Watch,” by Gregory Burke, paralleled Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo in its theatrical portrayal of war. Although I know both plays were meant to make the audience ask questions and attempt to work out answers, I am also aware of their intent to evoke disgust, fear, worry, and possibly anger toward the “realistic” portrayal of war.

    Because I find little entertainment in watching a performance about war, it has been hard to enjoy my theater-going experiences. For me, Black Watch made a clear statement nonetheless; war is impossible to understand unless one has experienced it first hand, and yet, even so, war is confusing and incomprehensible. The Scottish soldiers in this regiment struggled to understand their purpose in Iraq, and even after the war, while recounting their experiences, struggled to answer the question: “What was it like in Iraq?”

    Knowing two men who have fought in Iraq and attempted to recount their experiences to me, I find it extremely difficult to watch a theatrical portrayal of war. My friend’s father was a Brigadier General in the Army and a classmate was a Marine, both deployed to Iraq at the beginning of the war. They shared similar sentiments about the war, spoke little about them, but conveyed the seriousness of fighting.

    The most striking thing that my classmate ever said was: “you only aim your gun at what you intend to kill or destroy.” Hearing the seriousness in his voice and knowing the violent, gruesome, and stressful situations he had told us about, I think it is hard to find anything realistic about a portrayal of war that involves soldiers singing and dancing and intense music accompanying night raids. I know these elements are for dramatic affect, but for me, that takes away from the intensity and very real nature of war.

    There was one scene in Black Watch that I found extremely moving, however. This was the scene in which the soldiers received their letters, read them, dropped them, and started motioning with their hands. This demonstrated, quite vividly, the horror of soldiers separated from their family and placed in harms way. I am curious to know, though, what the writer and director intended by the hand motions. To me it showed the way soldiers attempted to cope with their situation, having a regimented routine to respond to even a letter.

    Although I may not have enjoyed the play like many of my fellow theater-goers, I understand the powerful messages of the performance and respect the attempt at realistic portrayals of soldiers disturbed by war.

    • Mary, I really appreciate your honesty about the artifice of theatrical elements taking away from the your sense of the “realism of war.” You temper your disaffection with high appreciation for the letter reading/handing wringing sequence. You describe it nicely, and ask a vivid question about it at the same time; the mystery being perhaps an interesting component of what makes the gesture and the entire sequence so memorable.

  3. Black Watch was unlike any other production I have ever seen. It was an intense and well written historical account that when put together with the direction and actors created a masterpiece. I will sheepishly admit however, it took me a little time to adjust to the accents of the characters, and the actors themselves for that matter. I thoroughly enjoyed that the actors were actually from Scotland and I believe that it sincerely added to the reality of the production.

    The production was very well lit and the set was well created. The lighting, smoke, and sounds all added to the realness of the production. I sincerely enjoyed that the set was three-dimensional in so many aspects and the characters interacted with the set a lot. They really made the set a huge part of the production. I thought it was very interesting when the characters towards the beginning had cameras in their face and it was projected on the televisions and on the tarp. Another interesting set interaction was how the pool table became multiple different things throughout the production and it was very believable. The fact that the set was created in a way that was so different from the norm made it much more interactive and fun. I liked the idea of an audience on both sides of the stage because it gave the stage more depth.

    I think the component of the production that I enjoyed the most is that it incorporated an actual historical account of events during the war. It gave the audience facts, which made it seem that much more real. I think the production did an excellent job on taking a controversial issue and conveying it to the public in a non-offensive manner. Overall, I enjoyed every aspect of the production and I thought it was very well created and executed.

  4. I found “Black Watch” a moving portrayal of Scottish soldiers’ involvement in the Iraq war. I agree with Mary that the letters scene was extremely powerful. I thought the hand motions were meant to physically symbolize the soldiers’ memories of holding loved ones from home – the cradling motion could have signaled a memory of a child, while placing their hands on their shoulders could have shown memories of their parents. I did not anticipate that the play would showcase that much choreography or singing, but thought it added another dimension that captured the soldiers’ experience in an unexpected way.

    I found the journalist’s interactions with the soldiers fascinating. I was not quite sure whether he was a journalist or a screenwriter seeking more information about the soldiers, but I thought he captured a fundamental fear that many journalists have. Journalists embark on a mission to capture truth and understanding for their readers each time they begin reporting on a new story. But what happens when the experience a journalist wants to convey simply cannot be understood? The tension between the journalist’s goal of understanding the soldiers’ experience and their pushing against that understanding caused me to reflect on the effectiveness of war reporting and the danger journalists place themselves in to capture stories from the ground. We also saw the effort to market a particular narrative to journalists in another scene – one soldier is selected to speak for the group, porn is taken off of his trailer, and he modifies his language for the home audience. The story is not authentic, as good journalism should be. It’s PR.

    Overall, I felt that the soldiers were portrayed in a more humanizing and dignified fashion than they were in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.” We saw them in tragedy as they watched the death of others in the regiment, in humorous moments as they poked fun at American soldiers, and in reflective moments as they recalled their memories while playing pool after the war. The acting was excellent and gave a well-rounded view of the soldiers.

  5. In contrast to “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”, I found that the play “Black Watch” was more focused on the soldiers and their story than that of a broader commentary on humanity. Whereas in “Bengal Tiger”, the war was the backdrop, a plot tool in the broader story addressing the human condition, war, the regiment, and fellow soldiers were the emphasis of this week’s play.

    I really enjoyed how the play inserted unconventional elements into the performance. From the clips of video speeches to the elaborate choreography of changing costume during a monologue, “Black Watch” was a completely unique experience. The most interesting scene for me was in the beginning when all of the men are goofing off in the bar and when the researcher asks “What was it like in Iraq?” The scene suddenly shifts from the fun, laid back atmosphere to an intense, wordless situation with the men cutting their way out of a pool table and ending up in Iraq. This scene represented for me the role that war plays in the lives of soldiers; it sort of seeps into the normal routines of the men.

    The biggest difference between the two plays for me was the fact that “Black Watch” was only about the men in the war and “Bengal Tiger” featured soldiers, a dictator, a gardener, and even a tiger. By focusing on different people, the themes and the role of war in the plays diverge. I am very interested to hear how others contrasted these two unique plays.

  6. I enjoyed watching Black Watch. Despite their inability to articulate “what Iraq was like”, I came away foremost with an emotional understanding of the trauma and anguish of the soldiers. Much of the dialogue made me question the respect that Scottish soldiers, and those of all nationalities, get after returning from war. Although there were many quips about the glory of saing, “I fought in war”, the Socttish were troubled by a period when men didn’t enlist to fight and so those that had were abused, similar to the conversation about “losing the paperwork” of the depressed soldier.

    I appreciated the atmosphere created through the touching music, the stark and uncomplicated sets, and relatable characters. There were a few scenes that really made the show for me. I was captured from the moment the soldier emerged from the pool table felt, and it didn’t end until the final “Flowers in the Forest” bagpipe scene. I was really enthralled by the military precision with which the actors executed expert costume changing maneuvers during the scene where Cammy regales the audience with the history of the Black Watch soldiers. One avenue that we have not yet explored with the previous plays was the effect of costuming. The evolution of the uniforms of the Black Watch soldiers not only gave the audience a quick and dirty (and much needed on my part) history lesson on Scottish military history, but also it gave insight into presence of national tradition through clothing and the progression into a uniform that more closely resembles what Americans are used to associating with military costume. For some reason seeing the final more “American” military uniform was a shocking reminder of the sacrifice of Scottish men helping to fight an American war.

  7. I found the Black Watch to be exhilarating, suspenseful, and a little overwhelming. The set of the play was very interesting, as they staged the set without walls and had to act for both sides of the set. I could not imagine performing like those men did, while at the same time making sure their voices can be heard in such a large space. At times it was a little difficult to hear their lines when they were facing other direction, but I think it added to the feel of the play and it did not hinder the overall production.

    Even though the voices of the actors didn’t hinder the play, I think the extremely loud sound effects were a little over the top. Yes, they did help to bring in the audience and keep everyone alert, but they were just a little much. At times the production was so loud that I had to cover my ears. In my opinion, the play could have turned down the volume on their music sound effects just a bit and they would have been able to convey the same message.

    As for the play itself, I was amazed by the mix of theatrical performance that was carried out during the play and the amount of history that was given. Prior to the play and a little background research, I had very little knowledge of the Black Watch and Scotland’s army. They were able to change that in a very fun and interesting way by altering the soldier’s outfits over the course of the Black Watch’s timeline. By offering the information with visuals, I was able to grasp the history of subject much better than I would be able to while sitting in a lecture.

  8. The Black Watch was the most complex play we have seen to date, in my opinion. It was an intense, loud, and raw assessment of the harsh reality of war. The Black Watch military unit is certainly like no other. The regiment has played a vital part of these soldiers’ lives from generation to generation. One soldier even states that:”It’s in the blood. It’s part of who we are.” The regiment have shaped their own identity through their unique history, and distinct uniforms —the kilts, red hackles, pipes and drums. As one who was not familiar with the unit beforehand, I really appreciated the scene where the history of the Black Watch regiment is shown through various uniform changes as the soldier describes their past. The actors did a great job keeping the audience tuned in as they acted out this scene.

    Also, during the play, it was interesting and a bit comical to me to see that the mission in Iraq was as obscure to the soldiers as it still is to the American people, most of the soldiers and officers understood the mission as “porn and patrol.” Watching the play truly made me realize and appreciate the fact that there are soldiers willing to fight for their country even if the mission is unclear.

    Overall, the play was well produced, but very complex. It did not follow the traditional plot structure, but it did give brief looks into the soldier’s Iraq experience. It was sometimes difficult to follow some of the concepts of the play because of the soldiers’ strong Scottish accent, and sometimes the choreography. For example, I did not capture the full significance of what I believe was probably the most powerful moment in the play. The scene occurred when the soldiers were receiving their mail. Following the reading of their mail, each soldier began a routine choreography with their hands. Did anyone catch the full significance of that impactful yet confusing moment?

  9. I really enjoyed watching the Black Watch this past week. Aside from knowing it was a war play, I didn’t know what to expect. It was definitely very different than the play we watched last week, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which was also a war play set in Iraq.

    To be honest, I had no idea that Scottish soldiers had taken part in the Iraq war. This was completely new to me and immediately after leaving the show I had to go and do some research of my own. I loved the staging of this play. At first I was not very happy about the way the stag was set up, but towards the end felt that the actors did a great job at using the entirety of the stage space. I loved how minimal set up there was on the stage, and how most of the props where to the sides of the stage. I loved the use of lighting and projectors. I also really enjoyed the choreography of this play especially during the “fighting” scenes and the death of the soldiers. My favorite part was the marching at the end. It was so beautiful to watch. You could see the brotherhood between each soldier and the pride of unit.

    Overall, the play was beautifully performed. There were parts that were hard to understand, but I felt that the essence of the play was there the entire time. Very different from the previous play we saw last time, yet equally thought provoking and emotional.

  10. Watching the play Black Watch on Thursday was a unique theatre experience to me. The play specifically showed the clips of the lives of the Scottish soldiers in the Black Watch during the war, used interesting techniques to connect these clips, and designed several symbolic scenes to present the overview of the war and discuss its meaning.

    The play started as an interview scene where a reporter was doing an interview with the soldiers who were in the war and asked about their lives in the war. When the reporter asked them why they joined the army, soldiers had different answers. Some said they wanted to explore the meaning of life, some said they joined to experience a different life, but they all came to the same conclusion “I don’t like being a soldier”. More clips presented how the war impacted the lives of these soldiers. Explosions happened everyday, and they needed to be extra careful to protect themselves and each other. Being away from home and girls increased their desires for love and sex. The high tension of being in a war made these soldiers less tolerant of other people’s behaviors.

    After presenting several specific clips of these daily situations, the play used several symbolic scenes to summarize these. First is the scene where soldiers received letters from people who cared about them. One soldier received these first and passed the rest on to others, and finally all the soldiers were reading and thinking about the letters. The music was so beautiful and this scene showed how deeply all the soldiers missed their families. The part that confused me at first was that the actors started to use sign language after reading the letters, but then I interpreted this as the soldiers’ unspeakable complicated feelings toward the war. The second scene started when the soldiers started to fight with each other over little things on the truck, and then it developed into a scene where everyone on the stage was fighting with another person. The way I interpret this is that the life in an army didn’t have much fun, so the soldiers teased each other to make life more interesting. However, the high intensity of the war and the possibility of being killed every next minute made these soldiers less tolerant of discomfortable behaviors and they tended to get angry easily. Thus, conflicts happened very often in their lives, they got angry easily and they somehow found the fights being fun. The last scene of soldiers running to the edge of the stage and parading was very interesting too. It concluded this show presenting the busy, intense, and repetitive life of being in the army. Some people fell down on the way, some got help from others, but they were all trying their best to fight towards the end.

    Overall, the play used many interesting and unique techniques to present and connect the scenes. It made me feed sad that the language barriers prevented me from understanding some parts of the play, but I very much enjoy watching this show and thinking about the implications behind each scene.

  11. At the end of Black Watch there was a palpable shift in the theater’s atmosphere. This show was devastating and beautiful, and curious. I was struck by the explicit lack of “the other” there was no woman and no Iraqi in the entire production, and explicitly so. I believe that this emphasized the world-unto itself that is created in military situations. There was an emotional and psychological distance between the soldiers, and all others. When the researcher asked questions about the Iraqi people, he was met with the answer “what does that have to do with anything?” (paraphrase from memory). This was the most outstanding difference between Bengal Tiger and Black Watch, in my estimation. Bengal Tiger strove to deeply explore the personal and psychological of individual characters, with vastly different points of view and different stakes. In Black Watch, the individual was subsumed by and large, by the group experience that bonds the soldiers, both with their regiment and with soldiers past. Black Watch also explored PTSD and the emotional wounds that can occur as a result of war, but did so at a slightly more removed level—looking at the overall social phenomenon rather than the individual biographical occurrences.

    As for as the artfulness and aesthetics of the play are concerned, there was a brilliant use of scenery and props (the transforming pool table was central), fantastic use of lighting and sound to suggest the world described within and beyond the stage, and choreographed history and battle scenes that were creative, original and fascinating. The singing and choreography gave a solid sense of cohesiveness between the characters and helped to crystallize the group identity and experience of the characters. This play was at times shocking, funny, sad and brutally honest. It is most certainly food for thought.

  12. The play “Black Watch” was thrilling and stimulating play experience for me. The play had singing and choreography almost like a musical. I thought the “Black Watch” and “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” had both similar and distinct features. Both plays takes place in Iraq portraying the soldiers lives at a war. While “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” focused more on each soldiers personal and individual issues, the “Black Watch” emphasize on soldiers unity and support. The scene towards the end where soldiers starts marching in a formation was really captivating. There were no lines, but the soldiers marching in a single unit, soldiers getting shot but don’t leave any men behind, expressed important of unity during war using well structured choreography.
    I thought it was very clever to introduce the journalist and ask “how was it like in Iraq?” It shows typical reporters or journalists, who interview people who came back from the war. I was anxious to see the tension between the Scottish soldiers and the American journalist because each scenes seemed like someone was going to let loose. There were no connection between the soldiers and the journalist starting from their interest to their nationality, showing group of very two groups of people.
    Overall, compared to the “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” the play contained well-structured choreography with the fighting scenes and the marching scenes. I also loved the play-set and the lightning effects perfectly set the mood of each dynamic scenes. I think the scene where two soldier pops up from the pool table was notable.

  13. The blunt expression of emotion in Black Watch is the driving force in the play from its inception. From the straightforward way the Black Watch veterans spoke out about their experiences in war to the machismo and bravado with which they spoke about themselves to the rude manner with which they treated the reporter, this play uses a straightforward way of characterizing in order to aptly describe the devastation and negative sentiment of those on the battlefields. In their speech patterns, most notably, through the use of profanity in quickly and aptly describing their situations of these characters and how they compare their situations at home and drawing on cultural points to keep a semblance of what it culturally means to be a Scotsman at war. In contrast to this curt character development are the more surreal and choreographed aspects of the play that were able to demonstrate the dance of history and battle. This surrealism illustrates, in one scene, a sort of domino effect and cultural predisposition that is at the same time choreographed and completely different for each of these generations. From the moment I saw the Black Watch soldiers cut their way out of a pool table, it was obvious that there was a certain nuance and absurd nature of the war, at least from the perspective of the Black Watch illustrated it. Despite the multiple angles at which the audience can view the play, the play purposefully shows 360 degrees of one perspective of war, which is at once amazing and disappointing because of its single thought process and amazing in that it could show this one perspective so completely.

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