Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:34 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:34 | SYDNEY

Black Watch


Michael Fullilove


17 January 2008 08:25

This week I saw a cracker of a play at the Sydney Festival – one with strong international policy resonances. The National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch is the latest instalment of Iraq War-related art, after Mike Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs and David Hare’s Stuff Happens. It is also far superior to all of them.

The play is being staged at a beautiful new venue, CarriageWorks, at the old Eveleigh Railway Yards behind the University of Sydney. (Was ‘CarriageWorks’ really the best name they could come up with? Why do branding experts insist on inventing names by running words together in Germanic fashion, as with PricewaterhouseCoopers?)

In Black Watch, a bunch of squaddies from this famous Scottish regiment tell a theatre researcher (a proxy for the actual playwright, Gregory Burke) about their experiences in Iraq’s Sunni triangle. The play zooms down from the Lowy Institute’s usual bird’s eye view of international policy to the close-up picture: the impact of war on the mainly working-class men who do the soldiering that policymakers decide is required.

The play is not easy to describe. It has an experimental feel to it, but it’s neither agitprop nor a civics lesson. In the diversity of sequences (not to mention the pipes and marching at the end) it reminded me of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo – except that you don’t get swearing like this at the Tattoo. The acting was superb and the energy and physicality of the choreography impressive (though the actors were a little on the small side and their drilling was, perhaps, not quite up to British Army standards). In one scene, the lead actor is undressed and dressed in the regiment’s uniform as it changed over the course of its three hundred year history. The sequence may remind Australian audiences of the performance of ‘The Mateship’ in the Belvoir Street musical Keating!, in which Terry Serio’s John Howard progressively dons the get-up of Wallabies fan, cockie and digger.

Black Watch shines a light on some of the foolishness of the Iraq war, but Iraq is not really its main preoccupation. Neither is the pre-emptive use of force, the role of the media on the battlefield, nor the effectiveness of air power – though they all get a run. At its heart the play is an exploration of the character of the men who fight the wars our leaders initiate: their laddishness, loutishness, glory and suffering. It’s anti-war, but ambivalently so, because it recognises that the Army provides experiences and camaraderie to young men for whom the alternatives – the pit, the factory floor and Tesco – are bleak. Finally, it puts a very sharp stick in the eye of the British generals and politicians who contrived to merge this storied regiment – which fought at Yorktown and Balaclava, not to mention in South Africa, India, France, Flanders and Korea – with the other Scottish regiments at the very time they deployed its young men into a deadly theatre of war.