Review: Black Watch at the Barbican

Apart from The National’s revival of Hamlet, my next favourite this year has to be Black Watch, currently on at the Barbican.

A physical, powerful and dynamic performance, the play was about recent history (the Black Watch tour of Iraq) often told with stylistic sequences. The play set its political position clearly – ‘Iraq was the worst foreign policy disaster’ – but it did not berate the audience with this political tone. At the same time the play wasn’t overtly sentimental about Scotland; it stayed the right line of sentimentality. Both approaches were vital as it didn’t turn the play into a quasi political meeting.

The characters in the play were all ‘real’ people the audience should be able to relate to. The play captured the camaraderie and humour of the soldiers very well. At the same time, the soldiers’ propensity towards casual violence both amongst themselves and to those they encounter was portrayed both sensitively and realistically. Although there were references to an Iraqi translator, it would have been interesting to have had an actual Iraqi character in the play; but at the same time, it was made explicitly clear from the onset that this was the soldiers’ story. The potted history of the regiment’s engagement was, particularly, well done in the play.

This theme may not be something new but what the play emphasised was that soldiers didn’t fight ‘for Britain’ or ‘even for Scotland’ but they fought and died for their mates. British regimental history is perceived to be fantastic in binding men together and this play demonstrated that. It was about giving young men ‘pride, purpose and identity’ which both society and young men, as a whole, struggle to achieve. The Army remains a public sector institution that is good in what it does.

If I had one criticism of this otherwise excellent performance, it was the long stylistic sequence at the end of the play which was a touch out of kilter with its overall tone. That said, death, especially on the battlefield, is not easy to show on stage.

We saw some of the cast members at the bar afterwards, which was also a nice touch as evidently they didn’t feel too important to be amongst the some of the audience. I congratulated them jubilantly on their terrific performance but found myself suddenly being jolted back to reality when a few of them broke into singing ‘Islands in the Stream’.

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Black Watch by the National Theatre of Scotland runs till 22 January 2011.


About manipillai

Oh, just a few of my thoughts on theatre.
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One Response to Review: Black Watch at the Barbican

  1. dkb says:

    In agreement here as well, I thought the piece was compelling and finely-balanced. In particular, the excellent performances delivered a sense of the players working as a group, not just as a dramaturgical device, but as an experiential component.

    Perhaps the final concluding sequence may have some significance for those in the service; it was utterly lost on me, and generally contributed to my feeling the overall running-time was too long. I hasten to add, it is a minor complaint and did not detract from its impact.

    A thoroughly recommendable performance and I’m pleased to see it’s continuing to enjoy a sell-out run, especially at the Barbican – a good venue for it.

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