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A comment on Iraq via Scottish 'Watch'

September 22, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

Four and a half years old, the Iraq war not only dominates our news cycle but has become an inescapable part of our dramatic landscape. Throngs of films, television specials and theater productions have been asking us to confront a blood-soaked reality that a solid majority of Americans, according to the latest polls, consider a mistake.

"Black Watch," a performance collage by the National Theatre of Scotland being given its U.S. premiere by UCLA Live, approaches the wartime experience of Scottish soldiers in Iraq with hallucinatory immediacy. A portrait of military men in a deadly desert hell, the work mixes documentary interviews of veterans of the storied Black Watch regiment with movement choreography, film and video imagery and a whirlwind of explosive special effects, a few of which had me nervously ducking for cover.

When the production opened at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year, it was the talk of the British press, and it has continued to garner favorable attention while on tour. It's easy to understand why: The all-male company of 10 actors is impressively coordinated, and the unusual, grab-bag form that was devised by playwright Gregory Burke and director John Tiffany proceeds with an almost surreal, free-floating energy.

But to what end, you might ask, is all this theatrical ingenuity placed? Why should you bother to seek out onstage what you've long wished was over in reality? Good questions. "Black Watch" isn't concerned with the political motivations that led to the invasion. That story was attempted by David Hare in "Stuff Happens," and it remains a narrative quagmire that only history will be able to sort out. Nor is the piece a harangue about the evils of the American empire or a melodramatic exploitation that's long on sensationalism, short on perspective.

The ground that "Black Watch" covers is narrow, but it couldn't be more important in a war that's being fought without a draft and that remains to many of us a distant reality despite the media's bombardment. The work wants us to understand these soldiers as more than losers in the socioeconomic game of life or working-class casualty statistics. It wants us to get acquainted with them not as "heroes" but as men with a sense of pride in their military service, a profound loyalty to one another and a traumatic bond that will haunt them and their families for the rest of their days.

"See, I think people's minds are usually made up about you if you were in the army," says Cammy (Paul Rattray) at the top of the show, once the bagpipe and drum tattoo that has greeted us with its repetitive squeal has quieted down. Cammy is back home from his tour of duty in Iraq and has agreed to meet a woman from a theater company who's interested in the story of what he and his fellow vets went through.

But instead of the "tasty researcher lassie" whom he looks forward to seducing with his war stories, he encounters a shy writer (Paul Higgins) at the pub that he and his pals play pool at every Sunday. Pints of Guinness keep the fellows from storming out, and slowly but surely they share their collective tale of combat in a manner that refuses to tone down the barroom profanity or thick Highland accents.

Moving between the past and the present to an eclectic musical score, "Black Watch" establishes an expressive physical life onstage that allows us an unusually intimate perspective. We see the men sweltering in the desert sun with their pants drawn down to their ankles for momentary relief from the heat. We share their restless boredom as they fidget with a torn book or ogle nudie pinups. And we observe their discomfort as they stand on guard with guns as the bathroom calls out to them from far away.

A sequence in which the soldiers receive letters from home is performed purely through stylized gesture. As one by one they begin reading their missives, the men allow their arms to sway in arcs of poignant grace. The humanizing effect allows us to sense the hearts and souls that have been covered over in fatigues. It also, curiously, reminds us of what it means to be human -- the cherishing of connections that provide stable meaning and life-affirming purpose.

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