Comrade to the Bone: Scottish soldiers in a historic unit fight for themselves more than their country.
Comrade to the Bone: Scottish soldiers in a historic unit fight for themselves more than their country.

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When was the last time you felt honestly vulnerable in a theater? Utterly helpless? I’m guessing, given the comforting anonymity of the watcher’s dark, that it’s been a while—unless you’re one of the few who’s already seen Black Watch.

Because you’ll certainly feel helpless or vulnerable, if not both, when a shellshocked infantryman suddenly snaps in an Edinburgh pub, pinning a researcher whose clumsy questions about “what it’s like” have tripped a wire in the soldier’s head. When raw recruits hit the deck at the thunder of a middle-distance mortar blast outside their Iraqi base of operations, even as their more experienced squadmates cackle and mock. Or when, most horribly, a knot of men sits wedged into the back of an armored transport stalled on a road near Baghdad, and a pair of artillery-sight crosshairs begins roaming the stage—scarlet death-marks describing ever-tighter circles around soldiers who can’t see that they’re being targeted. Helplessness, vulnerability, and yes, for a moment, cold terror at the prospect of witnessing what might be next.

Black Watch hardly needs more praise than it’s already earned, first at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2006 and since in much-heralded engagements around the world. Derived from interviews with more than 50 veterans, it’s an immersive multimedia experience of impressive cinematic fluidity and stirring choreographic precision, and has been called everything from “a cause for hope after a surfeit of microwaved revivals and ersatz musicals” to “a sensitive examination of Scottish identity.” Historically, Scots are an outsize presence in the British armed forces, and the storied regiment of the title’s iconic status in the military chronicles not just that empire, but our eternally bellicose globe.

(That’s key: The men of the centuries-old Black Watch join up to fight for the Black Watch, as creator Gregory Burke has noted in many an interview. They fight not for Britain or any ideal but for each other and for Scotland, and their esprit de corps is a thing a U.S. marine might observe with admiration. That semi-formalized, government-sanctioned tribalism gets compared explicitly, in Black Watch, to the hungry adolescent identity-seeking that makes it possible for insurgent leaders to recruit suicide bombers in the confusing territory the regiment finds itself deployed in. But one turning point in the story Burke tells comes when the unit’s very sense of itself is challenged on the homefront: Fiscal concerns lead the British Army to fold the Black Watch and five other units into a generic Royal Regiment of Scotland. That’s a blow to men who already have questions about why they’re dodging mortars in an unfamiliar desert—and if by chance it seems a parochial concern in a war so drawn-out and intransigent, ask yourself what it might mean for the 101st Airborne to have its name blown away in the political wind.)

Still, I’ll join in the hosannas for this singular show—with one caveat—because there’s no question it can rock you back on your heels. Its first great coup comes just minutes in, when a taproom conversation between that intrusively curious writer (Paul Higgins) and the veterans he’s interviewing takes a pause long enough for a grim memory to erupt into the silence. The two lost soldiers who make their presence known don’t just make a startling entrance; they’re shockingly young. They step out of the past, guns at the ready, bodies swiveling and eyes darting to the far corners, and you think: How can they already know so much?

Many captivating images will follow, more than one elevated to the realm of the epic by Davey Anderson’s insistent, oceanic score. Letters from home, passed from hand to hand and transmuted into a symphony of silent signs. A ritualized 10-second scrap between two hotheads, sanctioned by a hardened sergeant (Higgins again, but most unlike that interviewer) and amplified in theatrical time until it becomes two or three minutes of lithe choreographed combat. A these-were-our-battles history of the Black Watch itself, catalogued by the evening’s central figure while the rest of the cast lifts him, spins him, tosses him in the air—dressing and then re-dressing him in the evolving uniform of the regiment, from its earliest tartan to the desert camouflage of the Iraq conflict. (Understudy Paul Tinto did the honors at the press performance, managing the manhandling with such aplomb that you wonder whether regular Jack Lowden could really put that much more English—if proud Scots will excuse the expression—on the maneuver.)

And that stalled truck will of course have its consequences. In that grim day’s aftermath, the bagpipes sound an unearthly howl and a regimental parade becomes a kind of ecstatically determined carrying-on, with men we’ve come to know drilling, stumbling, falling, retrieving one another and drilling doggedly onward, only to turn back at the stage’s edge to start their maneuvers all over again. These fierce young men—so young, still!—will do their job, the sequence says, and some of them will die or be broken doing it; they both know it and choose not to know it, but it is the duty of those watching to be ever conscious of the fact.

There’s greatness in the best of Black Watch. My only real reservation is that for all the extraordinary craft on display—and for all the humanity built into this bracing look at a war through the eyes of those who fight it—director John Tiffany and his team occasionally seem not to believe in the pure power of their choices. Those lyrical sequences go on past their emotional peaks. Having distilled a dazzling stage picture, Tiffany will set it to looping without working changes upon it, dialing up the volume of that manipulative musical score rather than trusting that he’s done the work and allowing the idea to resonate.

It’s incredible theater, what Tiffany, his collaborators, and those original interviewees have made. It’s just good to remember that the most wrenching drama can happen in the silences between words.

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