The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have, in recent years, become rich veins for art to mine; the politics and the human stories are rife with emotion and reaction, writes Matthew Amer.
Arguably no production has utilised this source as successfully as Black Watch, which won universal acclaim and handfuls of awards when it opened at the Edinburgh Festival in 2006. It has taken two years to find the correct space to stage it in London. Now the redesigned Barbican theatre gives the production a home in the capital for just one month.
Based on interviews with soldiers from Scotland’s famous Black Watch, Gregory Burke’s play is set both in the pub where the soldiers talk about their Iraqi experiences, and in Iraq, where the regiment was controversially sent to support the Americans in Camp Dogwood. The action moves between descriptions of events and reactions to them, to the events themselves.
Laura Hopkins’s design manages to be both restrained in its set, yet also visually striking when combined with the movement work from Frantic Assembly’s Steve Hoggett, whose choreography in particular provides tremendous depth where words might fail. Set pieces when the soldiers receive letters from home, or as they enter their final battle, provide images that are etched on the memory.
Davey Anderson’s music, adapted traditional army songs alongside his own compositions, both heightens the action with drums and rumbling bass, and hints at the history of the regiment. Although the National Theatre Of Scotland production deals predominantly with Iraq, it also explores the history of the unit; the same towns and districts that have provided its men for centuries, the camaraderie between the men that is born of fighting as part of that history and for their family and friends.
Seeing the soldiers both in and out of a battle situation gives a completeness to their characters, the post-tour of duty interviews reflecting the effects of battle on their shattered psyches. The ensemble performance allows different characters to rise and fall; the fresh-faced newbie eager for action, the loveable rogue who is always in trouble, the non-commissioned officer who knows he is not fighting the war he trained for.
Memorably, one of the fighters most affected by his experiences makes it painfully obvious to the interviewer that it is impossible to understand fully what these boys have been through, their motivations and their feelings. Black Watch comes close.