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Unlikely dramatist keeps soldiering on

September 19, 2007|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

When Gregory Burke was 16 and living in the working-class industrial town of Dunfermline, Scotland, he and his classmates were marched into the high school auditorium to see a touring production of "The Glass Menagerie." Before long, with projectiles and taunts, they had driven the actors from the stage -- plays not being the thing for Dunfermline youth of the mid-1980s, least of all anything delicate and talky.

That, Burke says, was his first exposure to the theater.

The next came about 15 years later, when he got a call from the Traverse Theatre, a venerable company in Edinburgh that specializes in staging new work. After sitting in a pile for months, his unsolicited script was now on the front burner, having grabbed director John Tiffany with its humor, political alertness and authentic grip on working-class life.

Soon, "Gagarin Way," about Scottish class warriors wreaking violence as they kidnap one of their factory's corporate bosses to make a political statement, was winning critical plaudits. Thus, a university dropout who'd been working on an assembly line making ink cartridges used in electronic printers became a playwright without ever having attended a play -- except for however much of "The Glass Menagerie" was performed before the actors couldn't stand the abuse any longer.

"When I think back, I feel so sorry for them," Burke recalled recently over the phone from his home in Edinburgh. "I was with the idiots shouting, just trying to be one of the lads. Everyone was having a good laugh. It was quite an unruly school."

But if he had not grown up with an acute sense of how to fit in with lads shaped by the rougher side of life in Fife, his home county, Burke might not have been the one to tackle "Black Watch." The semi-documentary play from the National Theatre of Scotland, which opens UCLA Live's annual International Theatre Festival tonight at Freud Playhouse, dramatizes the fighting in Iraq during the 2004 siege at Fallouja, as seen from the cramped, sweltering innards of an armored troop carrier. Burke based much of the script on interviews he conducted at a pub with seven Iraq war veterans of the Black Watch regiment, which has a nearly 300-year tradition as a crack unit in the British Army -- and as an outlet for working-class Scots trying to escape boredom, inertia and unemployment, or hungering for comradeship, action and a chance to do as their fathers, uncles and grandfathers had done.

By 2004, Burke was one of Britain's hottest emerging playwrights, and the National Theatre of Scotland asked him to investigate whether there was a play in the Black Watch's duty in Iraq, especially since organizational changes in the British army were threatening to subsume the regiment. The unit is known for sporting tam-o'-shanter caps with red cockades, for grand marching drills with drums-and-bagpipes, and for carrying its colors with distinction on such fields as Yorktown, Waterloo, the Somme, the Ardennes and in Korea at the Battle of the Hook.

Burke learned of a recently mustered-out group of young Black Watch veterans from St. Monans, a fishing village on the Firth of Forth. The writer and the soldiers had acquaintances in common, and Burke figured he also could break the ice by telling stories about his own relatives who'd served with the regiment. But knowing his quarry, he made a shrewd recruiting gambit, enlisting an attractive woman to make the initial contacts and set up the interview.

The troops were not pleased when Burke showed up sans assistant. The playwright, described by one Scottish newspaper as "small, chunky and shaven-headed," made up for the bait-and-switch by putting the bar tab on his expense account, which he continued to do in a series of interviews at the soldiers' favorite pub, the Harbour Inn.

Burke learned what had happened to them and to others they knew, including the suicide car-bombing that killed three of their comrades and an Iraqi interpreter. But he didn't learn how the war had hit them emotionally.

"They'd open up about everything, apart from how they felt. I didn't expect any emotional breakthrough. When people don't say things, it speaks volumes as well."

Much of what the soldiers did say is in the play -- and it's said with a fusillade of swear words that makes David Mamet seem almost prim. The show, having its U.S. premiere at the Freud before moving to St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, bodes to set a Los Angeles stage record for Anglo-Saxonisms per minute.

Burke permitted himself dramatic license in crafting the play's climactic patrol and in creating a writer-interviewer character whose sessions with the soldiers in the pub are far less relaxed and companionable than he enjoyed.

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