A docudrama play from Scotland’s new National Theatre, about Scottish soldiers in Iraq, garnered accolades from critics and a sold-out run during its recent tour in New York. “Black Watch,” by Gregory Burke, takes its title from the name of a 270-year-old Scottish regiment. The New York Times called the play “one of the most richly human works of art to emerge from this long war.”
“Black Watch” tells the story of a group of young soldiers, both during their service in Iraq and afterwards. Playwright Gregory Burke based the play on his interviews with veterans at a pub in Fife, Scotland, where they met to drink and play pool and darts -- and to recall for the playwright, reluctantly, their experiences in Iraq.
“He knew these guys, they were real people for him,” says Susan Feldman, artistic director of St. Ann’s Warehouse, where “Black Watch” toured, “but then he transformed them and their testimony, and turned it into art.”
She said she leapt at the chance to bring the play to her theater in Brooklyn. “I think it's got a fantastic immediacy to it, I think it tells the truth, it has a truth to it, it's very, very theatrical. And the fact that theater could achieve so much reality about such a difficult topic as war, I thought was really important."
The play uses music, video, and choreographed movement as well as dialogue to sketch the history of the Scottish regiment. At one point, an actor is dressed and undressed like a mannequin in the Black Watch uniform as it evolved over several centuries of wars around the world. He narrates the history through his costume changes, at one point explaining the origins of the regiment’s most recognizable emblem. “Somewhere along the way, George the Third decided we deserved to wear a red vulture feather in our hats: the red hackle."
“Black Watch” moves from that fabled history of the regiment to the 2004 deaths of three Black Watch soldiers in a suicide bombing in Iraq. It suggests that Scottish leaders sent the unit to Iraq for political reasons. The soldiers themselves doubt the purpose of their mission.
“You're not really doing the job that you're trained for,” one of the soldiers tells a TV reporter in Iraq. “I mean, it's not like they're a massive threat to you or your country, you're not even defending your country. You’re invading their country.”
But the soldiers, young men from working-class backgrounds, say they didn’t enlist out of high ideals, anyway. They say they joined to fight – and that they fight for each other. “Not for my government, not even for Scotland,” the soldiers say in the play. “I fought for my regiment,” says one. “I fought for my platoon,” says another. “I fought for my mates,” says the last one.
Two American veterans, both of whom have written books about their experiences in Iraq, spoke at a recent post-play discussion at the theater. They said that “Black Watch” could have been written about their own units. “I think the experience is pretty universal,” said Jason Christopher Hartley, a member of the New York Army National Guard. “Their vocabulary is different, their accents, they serve in different places, there's more minutiae-type stuff that's different, but the core of it is the same,” he said.
His fellow vet and Guard member Paul Rieckhoff, who also runs an organization advocating for American veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, agreed. “I found it to be incredibly powerful, and like nothing else I’ve seen so far having to do with the Iraq war,” he said. “What really hit home for me was the scenes of them in a bar when they come home, and they’re playing pool, and playing darts, and trying to process their experience, and kind of joking around about times they had in Iraq, but just trying to internalize and deal with having been in a war. Which is something that all veterans face coming home, and have as long as there’s been warfare.”
In “Black Watch” the lives and deaths of Iraqis on the other side of the checkpoints are never seen. That disconnect -- because of language, fear and culture -- is part of the reality of Iraq for the Scottish soldiers, as it is for the Americans. “Black Watch,” directed by John Tiffany, premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2006 to critical acclaim.