A pow­er­ful piece of theatre takes its au­di­ence inside the minds of Iraq vet­er­ans from Scot­land’s Black Watch reg­i­ment, writes David Na­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

IN 2004 when the Na­tional Theatre of Scot­land de­cided to fund a play­wright to in­ves­ti­gate the wartime ex­pe­ri­ences of the fa­mous Black Watch reg­i­ment in Iraq and track its in­te­gra­tion into a new su­per reg­i­ment of the Bri­tish Army, the name of Gre­gory Burke quickly rose to the top of the list.

A writer out­side the main­stream cre­atively and so­cially, Burke had burst on to the Scot­tish lit­er­ary scene three years ear­lier with his de­but play, Ga­garin Way, a black com­edy about ur­ban ter­ror­ism that dealt with themes as var­ied as men­tal ill­ness, glob­al­i­sa­tion and the cri­sis in mas­culin­ity. The play was widely ac­claimed be­fore the events of 9/ 11 saw it suf­fer from a cri­sis of con­text, but along with Burke’s sub­se­quent work it con­firmed to Scot­land’s arts com­mu­nity that a bright, un­con­ven­tional and an­gry new tal­ent had ar­rived.

At the NTS, where 10 funded as­sign­ments are awarded each year for play­wrights and artists to ex­am­ine var­i­ous sub­jects for their artis­tic or the­atri­cal po­ten­tial, there was a feel­ing that Burke’s raw­ness, his dis­dain for the ortho­dox and his de­clared in­ter­est in ‘‘ the in­fi­nite ca­pac­ity of men for self- delu­sion’’ would be suited to the Black Watch project.

It also helped that Burke was a na­tive of Fife, one of the low­land ar­eas where the Black Watch, orig­i­nally a High­lander reg­i­ment, had been draw­ing its re­cruits for the best part of 150 years.

By and large th­ese re­cruits were work­ing- class lads who toiled on the docks, in the mines and on fac­tory as­sem­bly lines be­fore join­ing the reg­i­ment. Their nat­u­ral so­cial habi­tat was the pub and the foot­ball ter­race, places Burke not only knew and un­der­stood but, sig­nif­i­cantly as it turned out, en­joyed as much as they did.

In Black Watch , Burke and di­rec­tor John Tif­fany have com­bined to pro­duce a clas­sic story of our time, a play of as­ton­ish­ing en­ergy that takes au­di­ences deep into the id­iocy and ec­cen­tric­ity of the war in Iraq and the con­flicted hearts and con­fused minds of the sol­diers who have to fight it.

Wher­ever Black Watch has gone, au­di­ences have been left stunned by the fe­roc­ity of its lan­guage, the stark­ness of its mes­sage and the breath­tak­ing phys­i­cal­ity of its pro­duc­tion. In New York, where it played at an in­ti­mate ware­house theatre in Brook­lyn, long and en­thu­si­as­tic stand­ing ova­tions fol­lowed ev­ery per­for­mance.

A univer­sity dropout who spent his 20s in low- paid hospi­tal and fac­tory jobs while he won­dered what he was go­ing to do with his life, Burke finds him­self, at 38, be­ing feted as a Scot­tish an­swer to Ten­nessee Wil­liams. One Scot­tish critic went so far as to hail Black Watch as the first land­mark cul­tural event of the 21st cen­tury.

The play is un­doubt­edly a must- see of the com­ing Syd­ney Fes­ti­val, but those for­tu­nate to get a ticket will be in for a sur­prise if they ex­pect to see a left- lean­ing piece of theatre that preaches the anti- war gospel and con­demns the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion for the quag­mire in Iraq.

The pol­i­tics of Black Watch are much more com­plex than this and, as Tif­fany is at pains to point out, he and Burke were de­ter­mined from the start to avoid a pro­duc­tion in which a group of lib­eral artists sim­ply tell a group of lib­eral au­di­ence mem­bers that Iraq is a dis­as­ter.

‘‘ I hate that kind of theatre that preaches a woolly, lib­eral left- wing agenda to a woolly, lib­eral left- wing au­di­ence, and then they all pat them­selves on the back and go out to din­ner,’’ Tif­fany says at his ho­tel in Man­hat­tan’s East Vil­lage. ‘‘ What we wanted to do was chal­lenge the au­di­ence we knew would be com­ing to think about the sol­diers, th­ese boys who are ac­tu­ally be­ing be­trayed more than any­body else.’’

This game plan is ev­i­dent from the highly charged open­ing that in­tro­duces Cammy, a Black Watch sol­dier just re­turned from the reg­i­ment’s Camp Dog­wood base in Iraq.

The scene is a Fife pub where Cammy and some of his pla­toon bud­dies are to meet a theatre re­searcher and talk over their Iraq ex­pe­ri­ences, a clever de­vice that al­lows Burke’s own in­ves­ti­ga­tions, which con­sisted mainly of drink­ing, play­ing pool and watch­ing sport with his sub­jects, to be­come the ba­sic struc­ture of play. In the play, Cammy is a re­luc­tant go- be­tween for the meet­ing be­cause he’s wary of peo­ple who have their minds made up about those who choose army life.

‘‘ They poor f . . king boys. They can­nay day any­thing else. They can­nay get a job. They get ex­ploited by the army,’’ he says, ad­dress­ing the au­di­ence in a de­fi­ant Scot­tish brogue. ‘‘ Well, I want you to f . . king know. I wanted to be in the army. I could have done other stuff. I’m not a f . . king knuckle- drag­ger.’’

In the same coarse vein, Cammy goes on to chal­lenge those who ar­gue the war in Iraq is il­le­gal and who de­cry the US- led forces as bul­lies. ‘‘ Get f . . king used tay it,’’ he says. ‘‘ Bul­ly­ing’s the f . . king job. That’s what you have a f . . king army for.’’

When Cammy’s mates ar­rive at the pub, all of them un­der the im­pres­sion they’ll be meet­ing a fe­male re­searcher as op­posed to the male variety who later ap­pears, the swag­ger­ing, tribal, testos­terone- driven vul­gar­ity of bar­racks cul­ture is laid bare.

It’s an ex­tra­or­di­nary open­ing and, dif­fi­cult though some theatre go­ers may find the un­re­strained lan­guage, it is es­sen­tial to what fol­lows be­cause it helps de­fine the Black Watch for what it re­ally is: an in­sti­tu­tion as work­ing­class in char­ac­ter as the coal pit, the wharf, the fac­tory floor or the rail­ways. Burke be­lieves this not only ex­plains the suc­cess of Scot­land’s old reg­i­men­tal sys­tem but also why there was such an out­cry when the gov­ern­ment an­nounced the Scot­tish reg­i­ments were to be amal­ga­mated.

‘‘ In the Black Watch, you al­ways served with peo­ple who were re­cruited in your area, who you knew and had grown up with, who you could never be a coward in front of,’’ Burke says.

‘‘ If you let any­one down it would al­ways get back to your fam­ily. So, in a very real sense, be­ing in the Black Watch was as close as you could get to be­ing at home with­out ac­tu­ally be­ing there.

‘‘ When they said they were go­ing to merge all the Scot­tish reg­i­ments, they put all that at risk. It was like clos­ing the pit. It af­fected ev­ery­one.’’

Burke’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion of this was helped in no small mea­sure by his own fam­ily in­volve­ment in the Black Watch. His grand­fa­ther fought with the Fife and For­far Yeo­manry, a ter­ri­to­rial bat­tal­ion of the reg­i­ment, at the Somme and in Me­sopotamia and Pales­tine in World War I. He had signed up as a 16- year- old at a re­cruit­ment sta­tion in Dun­fermline where El­gin had ap­peared and, wav­ing the sword of his an­ces­tor Robert the Bruce above his head, shouted: ‘‘ Who’ll fol­low a Bruce?’’

In World War II, one of Burke’s great- un­cles was part of the Black Watch forces in­volved in re­liev­ing the Aus­tralian gar­ri­son at To­bruk. Burke’s quest for hu­mour in even the most un­for­tu­nate cir­cum­stances — even at the ex­pense of a rel­a­tive — was ev­i­dent when he ex­plained in an ar­ti­cle in The Times how the va­garies of bat­tle­field surgery left his un­cle

smil­ing for the rest of his life af­ter he was hit in the face by Ger­man shrap­nel. Burke has a cousin serv­ing in the Aus­tralian armed forces — ‘‘ Like all Scots­men I’ve got rel­a­tives scat­tered all over the bloody world,’’ he says — and ad­mits that he, too, might have signed up for the Black Watch had not deaf­ness in one ear left him in­ca­pable of pass­ing the med­i­cal.

‘‘ I might have been tempted when I dropped out of univer­sity,’’ Burke says.

‘‘ I was kind of at a loss at what to do at that time and I think it could have been very easy to say: ‘ Well, I’ll do that for a cou­ple of years.’ ’’

Burke says he was un­com­fort­able with univer­sity life; he told one in­ter­viewer that he strug­gled to cope with be­ing asked his opin­ion in tu­to­ri­als. ‘‘ You come from a state school and you go into a tu­to­rial and some­one says: ‘ What do you think?’ And you go: ‘ Well, I think what you think, mate. You’re the f . . king gaffer, ken?’ So I just drifted out of go­ing. I’m glad I went, though, be­cause it robbed it of its mys­tique.’’

In­stead, Burke spent his 20s los­ing him­self in books and cin­ema — di­rec­tor Spike Lee is a favourite — while en­dur­ing the drudgery of a se­ries of un­sat­is­fy­ing day jobs. Fi­nally, at 29, he de­cided to put pen to pa­per af­ter re­al­is­ing he couldn’t keep watch­ing television ev­ery night and com­plain­ing about how bad the writ­ing was.

The re­sult was Ga­garin Way, a play that might have ended up in the bin with so many other un­so­licited manuscripts but for the fact Tif­fany came across it, liked it and de­cided to put it on at the Ed­in­burgh Fes­ti­val Fringe, where it be­came a smash hit.

Sud­denly Burke was a lit­er­ary star but, just as in his univer­sity days, he found it dif­fi­cult to cope with the ex­pec­ta­tions.

‘‘ When pol­i­tics are at­tached to your name as a writer, au­di­ences will have cer­tain ex­pec­ta­tions as to what your views will be,’’ he wrote in Bri­tish news­pa­per The Guardian in 2003. ‘‘ This is par­tic­u­larly true when you have writ­ten a play with the name of a com­mu­nist icon ( Yuri Ga­garin) in the ti­tle. I have tended to dis­ap­point peo­ple with the fact that I re­flect my non­com­mit­ted gen­er­a­tion.’’

Burke adopts the same stand­point when asked about the golden thread, the sym­bol­ism that links the Black Watch sol­dier of to­day with the tri­umphs of the reg­i­ment dur­ing the past 300 years. Burke be­lieves the golden thread is what gives the Black Watch its clan- like cul­ture, where mem­bers fight and die for each other rather than their gov­ern­ment or their coun­try.

But ask him if he ad­mires the golden thread and Burke is non­com­mit­tal.

‘‘ The golden thread is a part of our na­tional story and our sense of our­selves,’’ he says. ‘‘ It is also fun­da­men­tal to the Black Watch, which is a great reg­i­ment with a sto­ried tra­di­tion. I think young guys are al­ways look­ing for a sense of iden­tity and I think the army has al­ways been aware of that, so it uses the golden thread to trap peo­ple into the mind­set of tra­di­tion. But do I ad­mire it? I don’t know. I’m not sure what I think about it. I just know that it ex­ists.’’

Not in dis­pute is the ad­mi­ra­tion Burke and Tif­fany have for the re­mark­able ath­leti­cism of the Black Watch cast who per­form heroic phys­i­cal feats with ev­ery per­for­mance and who turn a play with just one main prop — a pool ta­ble that dou­bles as a troop car­rier — into a vis­ual feast.

Burke says the en­ergy wasn’t planned but grew or­gan­i­cally as the sto­ries the sol­diers told over many drink­ing ses­sions be­gan to form the text. ‘‘ One of the things that quickly be­came very self- ev­i­dent was that the play had to have a great deal of phys­i­cal­ity in it,’’ Burke says.

‘‘ So we used all the tools we could and at the end of re­hearsals John said: ‘ Well, that’s it, the cup­board is bare.’ ’’

To cope with the phys­i­cal de­mands — it’s es­ti­mated each ac­tor loses two litres of wa­ter ev­ery per­for­mance — the cast prac­tises an hour of yoga be­fore each show un­der the su­per­vi­sion of chore­og­ra­pher Steven Hoggett. He says one of the big­gest chal­lenges of the pro­duc­tion has been mak­ing sure the ac­tors are phys­i­cally com­mit­ted to ev­ery­thing they do.

‘‘ The con­trol of the guys phys­i­cally is some­thing we re­ally had to nail,’’ Hoggett says. ‘‘ We had a drill sergeant who came in and did a cou­ple of ses­sions with us. That taught us a lot about just what it means to hear a voice and to do ex­actly what that voice says, not even to ques­tion it.

‘‘ He talked about how you hold your­self, tiny de­tails like when you stand to at­ten­tion and you clench your fist, your thumb is pressed against your in­dex fin­ger and that has to be in line with the mid­dle of your thigh mus­cle.

‘‘ The point of it all is that if you can get the ac­tors to where they’ll do any­thing you want, ag­gres­sively and pre­cisely, then we can also play with this phys­i­cal­ity when we want to show the char­ac­ters as peo­ple with hearts who go to bed at the end of the day and who think about things, and who miss peo­ple and who love peo­ple. It’s ex­cit­ing to work on a piece where you’re le­git­i­mately able to cre­ate such a big phys­i­cal spec­trum, to go right into the mil­i­tary ma­te­rial, but also to be able to ex­plore what’s inside that makes th­ese young men tick over.’’ Black Watch, part of the Syd­ney Fes­ti­val, will run at Car­riageworks, Red­fern, from Jan­uary 10 to 26.

On the de­fen­sive: The Na­tional Theatre of Scot­land’s pro­duc­tion of Black Watch , main pic­ture; play­wright Gre­gory Burke, above left; di­rec­tor John Tif­fany

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