Well, the Heavily Sponsored Dublin Theatre Festival is in full swing. We went along to the RDS last night for National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch. This is a heavily hyped production, widely acclaimed since first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe back in 2006. We were lucky - it seems the previous night’s performance was cancelled due to structural concerns about the specially erected banked seating. Didn’t know that until today.
The play draws directly on the experiences of soldiers from the Black Watch regiment tours in Iraq, specifically their controversial redeployment to more dangerous combat zones, in order to relieve US troops. Further themes are the war’s questionable legitimacy and the amalgamation of the Black Watch with five other Scottish regiments, in the context of the regimental history (referred to as The Golden Thread).
There’s no doubt this is a highly impressive production, with critical accolades a-plenty. Performances are consistently strong and there are a number of highly inventive set pieces in the staging, incorporating a pool table, projections, strobe lighting, bagpipes, TV screens, military drill and exceptional choreography. The blurb claims universal critical praise, but I overheard a few doubters as the audience filed out. I may have been one myself.
There seems to be a lack of clarity in the aims of the piece. Are we getting the soldiers story? If so, why is so much obscured? We see the squaddies serving together, chilling out in the pub, interviewed by a writer - yet they remain two dimensional. OK, we have the sarge, the cheeky one, the ladies man, the toffee-nosed officer, the new boys – all sound familiar? Obviously these tropes don’t arrive out of thin air – but they’re not particularly unique to the Black Watch either. I remember similar character sketches in Spike Milligan’s war memoirs. At no point do we get a sincere sense of any personality bar the cliché.
Now, I know this is drama and concessions must be made – but I left feeling that the ‘BigBangBoom’ factor, while providing a raucous evening’s entertainment, actually served to obscure what truths might be mined here. A bit like Riverdance being presented as an insight to Irish sectarianism? Ok, maybe that’s a bit harsh. But there was a definite emphasis on spectacle, and I felt the pacing at times seemed more suited to TV than theatre. This, coupled with martial piping and some superfluous drilling near the end, seemed to drag into mawkishness. The dangerous glamour of fatigues and guns is embraced, so that the military tattoo references seemed overplayed – tilting the balance towards gung ho, and away from the human aspects of the story.
On the plus side, there’s excellent exposition of the regimental history, in one of those inspired set pieces, involving the evolution of the distinctive uniform. There are few punches pulled where the legality of the invasion is concerned. There’s excellent use of symbolic language throughout; ‘bullying’, ‘porn’ and ‘petrol’ recur. I also learned what ‘toby-tag’ is (although I’m not sure I really needed to).
Anyway, bang-for-buck-wise, I shouldn’t be complaining. One hour and fifty minutes, (without an interval) passed with little discomfort or boredom. The audience mostly loved it and who says good art needs to hit all the buttons anyway?
Funnily enough, I found myself thinking of Tropic Thunder and wondering which of these two productions was the more disturbing. Ben Stiller’s movie – glibly playing war for laughs (and hilarious in parts) had me seething at times for a society in the grip of ‘the biggest Western Foreign policy mistake ever’ (to quote one of the Black Watch characters) packing out cineplexes for their explosive fix. Here, where the wounds are exposed with more intentional gravitas, I wondered why I wasn’t more moved.