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Theatre of war

PUBLISHED: 18:11 09 July 2008 | UPDATED: 17:21 16 August 2010

GREAT SCOTS: The cast of Black Watch prepare for battle.

GREAT SCOTS: The cast of Black Watch prepare for battle.

THE Barbican is transformed into a traverse staging for the National Theatre of Scotland production Black Watch, by locating both the action

THE Barbican is transformed into a traverse staging for the National Theatre of Scotland production Black Watch, by locating both the action and the audience on the stage in banked seating, creating an arena rather reminiscent of Horse Guards Parade in Whitehall.

Searchlights play around the parade ground, bagpipes skirl, and an announcement tells us we won't be allowed back in if we leave for any reason.

Tension rises, and with a loud bang the doors at the end open and Cammy (played by Paul Rattray) appears in civvies to start telling the story of this famous Scottish regiment and his part in it.

"At first, I didnay want to do this - see, the people's minds are made up about you if you are in the army," he complains, but offered a free drink for him and his mates.

He agrees to unburden himself "See, my father and grandfather were in the Black Watch."

This is all set in a pub back home in Forfar where they play cards, snooker or darts.

Evidently they weren't interested in joining the British Army as such, it is the local regiment that holds their loyalty and imagination.

Formed in 1667 as a para-military force by Charles II to 'watch the Highlands and the Braes' then sent to every desperate conflict round the globe for 300 years, ending up in the politicians dirty war in Iraq, these men are living with the ghosts and the heroes of a hundred campaigns.

The camaraderie of this close knit force is brilliantly used by choreographer Steven Hoggett to create a semi-dance scene, where the bored soldiers fight amongst themselves, climaxing in the discovery of three dead comrades hanging upside down outside after an explosion.

Death is never far away, and in Iraq they are sent from the comparative safety of Basra to relieve the Americans at Camp Dogwood in the 'triangle of death' so that the politicians in America could claim that their own 'casualties were decreasing' during an election campaign.

As the pressure mounts, Lord Elgin appears and sings The Forfar Soldier as Cammy is tossed around and dressed in a sequence of uniforms, going back to the beginning of the regiment.

There is wonderful movement here, and director John Tiffany makes the most of the climax where Cammy is left to seal up the body bags of his fallen comrades.

TV screens are used to convey the faraway comments of politicians and civil servants, who are planning the dissolution of the regiment at home whilst mortar bombs are landing amongst them right here.

Finally, Cammy announces that he is not signing on again and a lone piper plays as the men march in an increasing tempo, and as one of them falls, the others pick him up and continue on to a crescendo of sound. Very effective.

The ensemble acting is uniformly convincing and the creative vision is carried through with help from a former regimental sergeant major. Writer Gregory Burke has captured the tortured souls of young men who are dying before they have really had a chance to live.

* Black Watch is at the Barbican Theatre, Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS until July 26.

Tickets are £25 and available from the box office on 0845 120 7550.

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