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Black Watch

The National Theatre of Scotland's drama about soldiers in the Iraqi war is incredibly thought-provoking and rewarding. logo
Ryan Fletcher and Emun Elliott
in Black Watch
(© Manuel Harlan)
It's unnerving, emotionally and physically violent, and even vulgar at times, yet the indelible impressions that linger after seeing Gregory Burke's Black Watch, now at UCLA's Freud Playhouse (and coming to Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse later this month), are about the beauty and resiliency of the human spirit -- and the joys that can be gleaned from theatrical art at its most inspired.

The National Theatre of Scotland's mesmerizing mix of historical overview, docudrama, and immediately relevant social drama is presented in audacious and dazzling Brechtian strokes. A sublime cast, each member mastering the physical, emotional, and intellectual demands of his role, commands the stage with the disciplined precision of a military regiment, while director John Tiffany and his splendid design team create an enthrallingly visceral milieu in which intimate dramatic conflicts and breathtaking pageantry seamlessly merge.

The show's framing device is the history of Scotland's famed three-centuries-old Black Watch Regime, which was disbanded in 2004, the same week its 800-man battalion was deployed to one of Iraq's bloodiest regions to replace 4,000 U.S. Marines. The dramatic counterpart for Burke, who did fastidious research to create this piece, is an uptight writer (played by Paul Higgins) who arranges a barroom meeting with surviving members of a squad that backed up the U.S. during the assault on Fallouja.

The close-knit group taunts the interviewer and engages in a lot of aggressive horseplay, but the durability of the bond they formed during their horrific ordeal is evident, even when they continually chide each other with what appears to be their favorite word: "cunt." Their national pride is also eloquently established, alongside the unresolved questions as to why they chose to enlist and serve in an increasingly unpopular war. Meanwhile, huge projected images of talking heads -- battling politicians and newscasters -- convey the heated controversy of the war.

In one particularly horrifying scene, the interviewing writer's probing questions about the horrific battlefield deaths send one ex-soldier into a rage, and he suddenly turns on the writer, intent on breaking his arm, until his friends pull him off. At other harrowing moments, Burke interjects some much-needed gallows humor. Don't expect easy resolutions, either; just as there are none in war.

Flashbacks transport the action to artful battlefield sequences, punctuated by deafening sound effects (by Gareth Fry) and blinding lighting (by Colin Grenfell). There are also amazing stylistic segues into choreographed movements, songs, and surrealistic effects.

Black Watch offers the sort of tour-de-force theatricality that one simply can't look away from; yet there's so much going on in this multi-layered work that a second viewing is recommended to catch all of the subtleties. Indeed, this show is among the most thought-provoking and rewarding theatrical adventures I've ever seen.

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