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