Now this was one amazing event. I was lucky enough to have been invited to this one, which is a sort of curtain raiser for the Norfolk and Norwich Festival 2013. Knowing little about the play other than it was about a Scottish regiment based in Basra during the Iraq war it is probably fair to say that if I had not been invited or looked more deeply into the play it is unlikely I would have attended. How glad I am then that my friend invited me along to this one, and to a degree took me out of my cultural, gig-going ‘comfort-zone’.
I have never attended a piece of theatre like this before (let us overlook the fact it was staged at the UEA Sportspark and not a conventional theatre). Clearly over the three days of set up a huge amount of work went into this production, and actually the high ceilinged gymnasium really was an inspired choice of setting, providing the space for the booming acoustics one would expect for a play of this nature.
Two banks of seating had been assembled with a line of space inbetween as the “stage” with scaffolding at either end and huge, heavy duty steel doors below at one end. After the Scottish military pipes and drums stopped playing one of these doors opened and a young Scottish lad came out and simply said “Alright?” before introducing himself and his background, explaining that he was not someone who joined the army because he could do nothing else, he was “no knuckle dragging dimwit”. And so this theme emerged during the play, giving flesh and bones, depth and humanity to each of the characters, their beliefs, pride, brotherhood (they were all from the same communities, in Perth, Dundee and Fife), faith in what they were doing and representing, and the slow onset of disillusionment and frustrated rage.
It’s easy to pigeonhole ‘squaddies’ but this drama went much deeper. The language was obviously colourful, some of the jokes crude, the accents strong and the youthful male high spirits and bravado obviously was on display but at no point was it ever offensive in its scripting. The only thing that came across as offensive was of course the way they were used as pawns with no regard for their lives, as is the story over and over again through history using young working men simply as pawns in war. Boys in fact, interested in girls, football and beer but having to grow up too fast. The script is wonderful and also full of black humour, and one scene has a lovely dialogue about “bits of paper” superbly delivered. Perhaps one of the highlights for me was the scene where they read the letters from home. Powerful, understated and eerily beautiful.
I will not reveal anything more about the plot, but will highly recommend that you see this, the only showing outside of Glasgow this year. It is dramatic, loud, raw and gritty but it tells the tales rarely told, and of course it is all true, based on interviews and letters.
Showing until this Saturday, the opening night was a massive success, and I was totally enthralled for the near two hour performance. The acting and casting was outstanding, each actor getting the character spot-on. The story is moving, and the energy and choreography absolutely stunning. At the end the entire audience stood as one and applauded rapturously for a full four or five minutes and the cast had to come back for more bows and salutes about three times. I really wish I could see this again, a stunning and dramatic piece of theatre that challenges one’s preconceptions and for that reason alone should be seen, but is a great play in its own right.
Black Watch by Gregory Burke, directed by John Tiffany, showing at UEA Sportspark 17-20 April 2013 as part of Norfolk and Norwich 2013 Festival and UEA50
Tickets available at Theatre Royal Norwich, or online.
Words by shashamane