War theater: Black Watch

Rahul Rao reviews the play Black Watch, which has become one of the most celebrated contemporary "war plays" since it first opened in 2006.

Rahul Rao
17 January 2011


Image courtesy of The Barbican, photographed by Manuel Harlan

One of the narrative devices that writer Gregory Burke employs in Black Watch is to stage the play around the process of writing a play about the Black Watch regiment. The action begins in a pub somewhere in Fife where the boys are relaxing between tours, downing pints, shooting pool and salivating at the prospect of being interviewed by the ‘researcher cunt’ who wants to do a story about them. When to their disappointment the writer turns out to lack said piece of gynaecological equipment, he is quickly labelled a poofter, establishing almost at the start of the play a deeply gendered distinction between fighting and writing about fighting. (There is a brief scene later on when an embedded journalist tries rather hard to rise to the standard of masculinity presumably required at the battlefront and doesn’t quite succeed.) The writer’s whiny and slightly desperate entreaties to his subjects—‘but what was it like?’ how did you feel?’—elicit reactions of gruff inarticulacy and sometimes violence. Civvies must know what it was like; civvies can never know what it was like.

The genius of Black Watch as a production is that its emotional appeal does not rely on any particular prior view of Iraq as a "good" or "bad" war. Indeed although there is very little in the play about the war’s impact on Iraq, the script allows (and in some places enables) its audience to adopt morally complex positions—against the war, for the soldiers. Video footage of Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond’s statements criticising the deployment of the Black Watch to assist the American assault on Fallujah suggests a view of Scottish cannon fodder in an American and British imperialist war. The commanding officer remarks in a letter to his wife that the three hundred years of work that it took to build up the regiment were being squandered in a mere three years as a result of the foreign policy disaster that is Iraq. In a repeated refrain, one of the soldiers expresses disquiet at the distinction between invading a country and defending one. And the texture of the soldiers’ off-duty lives, drenched in alcohol and violence, reveals war as a phenomenon that also victimises soldiers.

The emotional core of Black Watch lies in its celebration of camaraderie amongst soldiers. The most moving parts of this ensemble production are those without words enacting the quotidian rituals of military life—parades; a mock fight staged in the style of Brazilian capoeira; an intensely poignant ballet in which the soldiers receive and read letters from their loved ones, each in their private space but together as a communal activity. Much more than the verbal banter, it is the physical movement sequences that depict in the most powerful and visceral way, the coordination, trust and the almost homoerotic relations of affect that bind soldiers together in a way that makes possible the gut-wrenching displays of courage and sacrifice that we have come to expect from them. For when the going gets tough, it turns out that soldiers fight neither for an abstract casus bellum nor for Queen or country, but—to use the language of the script—for their regiment, their company, their section, their platoon, their mates.


Image courtesy of The Barbican, photographed by Manuel Harlan

Whatever the truth of the actual Black Watch regiment, a nagging feminist voice inside me wants to insist that military mate-ship has historically been built as much on the parades and fancy dress as on hazing and misogyny. And an anti-imperialist voice inside me wonders at the celebration of military bonding, independently of the political uses to which it is put. We seem to continue to be in thrall to a Clausewitzean understanding of war as an organised social activity intended to further political objectives, and a medieval theological understanding of those objectives as sometimes being just. And yet, as this brilliant production demonstrates so vividly, war relies for its success on the maintenance of a sense of tribalism, whose values of heroism, sacrifice, and camaraderie can be moving and inspiring in and of themselves quite independently of the political objectives to which they are harnessed. Is this noble or horrific or both?

Back at home and reading the official history of the Black Watch regiment on its website, I am less than thrilled by its involvement in the ‘relief of Lucknow’ during the Indian Mutiny (1857-8), the Ashanti Campaign (1874), the suppression of the ‘Mahdi’s fanatical tribesmen’ in Sudan (1884), Mesopotamia and Palestine (1916-18), the Mau-Mau Rebellion (1953), the list is impressive. Black Watch has had very successful runs in the US, Canada, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. One wonders how it might be received in Iraq or Afghanistan.


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