Reviewed by Jasleen Jaswal Vines
The Black Watch has a storied history in Scotland, evoking a national pride that led generation after generation of men to enlist as a tribute to their forefathers and countrymen. What happens when this tradition frays, pulled apart by a conflict whose origins are questionable at best?
Playwright Gregory Burke interviewed soldiers in the Black Watch regiment who served in Iraq. First staged at the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and now selling out around the world, the story winds from their deployment to the deaths of three soldiers and their interpreter by an improvised explosive device (IED) to the pub where they gather after returning home. Interspersed are emails from an officer laying bare the difficulty of an impossible mission, politicians arguing the wisdom of backing the American forces, the soldiers negotiating their time on the front lines, and finding “normal” after coming home. Black Watch employs masterful stagecraft – actors in the rigging, televisions, projection, and rousing battle music - to weave the tale of the regiment’s last stand before being folded into a larger unit, much to the dismay of its soldiers and countrymen.
Narrator and soldier Cammie (Ryan Fletcher) reminds the audience throughout the show that he and his friends don’t feel they are defending their country, but rather, invading another and ruining the lives of its citizens. This in turns breeds their own disillusionment as dreams of travel, girls, and guns dissolve into a reality of death, forced redeployment, and post-traumatic stress syndrome. After returning home, a researcher who wants to tell their story asks all the wrong questions – “What’s it like to kill? Did you keep count?” – reawakening the frustration and pain of fighting a war that sounds nothing like the glory days of their forefathers.
Thought-provoking and engaging, Black Watch covers a wealth of history without losing focus. The tale of the formation of the Watch is dynamic, with Cammie going through a series of uniform changes as his story moves though time. Each performance is nuanced, especially when the men read letters from home and their gruffness fades, turning them back to the boys they are, all without saying a word. A moving military formation exercise at the close of the show is perhaps the most emotional sequence, as the men try valiantly to keep up their pace, only to fall and fall again.
Katy Walsh's review from the 2011 production of BLACK WATCH.
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes, no intermission.
At Broadway Armory
Runs through October 21
For a complete list of showtimes and to purchase tickets, visit Chicago Shakespeare Theater's website.
Photo courtesy Chicago Shakespeare Theater.