A scene from Black Watch
(© Richard Termine)
A scene from Black Watch
(© Richard Termine)
In the eight years since the Iraq war began, the decimating encounter has provoked any number of searing pieces of theater -- but by far the best, the most trenchant, the most mesmerizing is the National Theatre of Scotland's production of Gregory Burke's Black Watch, now back (with a new cast) at St. Ann's Warehouse, under John Tiffany's muscular direction.

The reasons for the drama's power are many, but a speech from one of the involved soldiers explains it most succinctly. "You're no really doing the job you're trained for, but it's no like they're a massive threat tay you or tay your country. You're no defending your country. We're invading their country and f****** their day up."

Unconvinced of a larger purpose beyond their orders, these soldiers see their immediate -- as well as their long-range -- goal as something pressingly personal. When Black Watch is nearing its conclusion, they declare they've fought "no even for Scotland" but "for my company," "for my platoon," "for my mates."

And indeed, the teamwork demonstrated by these remarkable actors during the intermissionless enterprise becomes a metaphor for the unity required of men in battle. Nothing drives that home more than the finale, wherein the 10-man ensemble executes a series of drills repeatedly interrupted by an actor stumbling and his fellows breaking rank only long enough to restore the fallen actor to his place in the persisting parade.

Throughout the piece, the men go through their maneuvers along a wide corridor separating two facing sets of bleachers and do so compellingly supported by Colin Grenfell's dramatic lighting, Gareth Fry's biting sound effects (many of them enough to lift on-lookers from their seats) and videos by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer shown on monitors at either end of the playing area.

The entire cast is first-rate, although Chris Starkie as Stewarty, the most volatile of the bunch (he's been diagnosed as "depressed), and Adam McNamara, who plays an unflinching sergeant and the reticent researcher for the commissioned play the audience is witnessing, stand out a tad above than their indefatigable, irrepressible colleagues.

Tiffany leaves nothing out in the writing and nothing is scanted by the cauterizing performances -- not the boredom induced, the awareness of the more visible American actions, the eventual combat lived, nor the bitterness and traumas evidenced at homecoming.

For white-hot theater, it doesn't get much better than Black Watch.