Black Watch

I went to see Black Watch at the Barbican last week.

When I told a friend afterwards that I thought it was extraordinary, she asked me what had been so good about it.  I found myself at something of a loss for words.  While I took a moment to think about it, I rather limply repeated, ‘it was simply extraordinary.’

Where were my vocabulary and my critical faculties?

Sometimes a reaction to a performance is visceral; you allow yourself to be totally absorbed, forgetting the passage of time, the discomfort of your seat, the people around you and the pure artifice of watching grown men pretending to be something they’re not.

When it works well, you experience something that can only happen in the theatre; you know it’s make believe, but there are real people conjuring something out of nothing, right there in front of you.  It’s not the fakery of CGI or special effects, it’s the illusion of a well constructed magic trick.

It’s the alchemy I hope for every time I go to the theatre.

I experienced it during War Horse; I knew that it was men, canvas and a metal and leather frame, but I believed there were horses on stage, and was moved in a way that I would not have been by a film of real horses.

So what was it about ‘Black Watch’?

It was all of it; the coming together of idea, script, staging, props and performances.  In a space, bare apart from a couple of freight containers and scaffolding, ten actors performed a piece constructed around a real fatal incident in Iraq in the period after the war had been declared ‘over’.

Their props were a few bar chairs, some guns and a pool table covered in red baize, which served as tomb, dug out, armoured vehicle and least of all, for playing pool.

The dialogue captured the cadences of speech of Fife, and the vocabulary of the squaddie, as well as the mealy mouths of politicians.

The actors switched from the aggression of  angry soldiers to the near ballet of a sequence in which one man was dressed successively in the regiment’s uniforms over the centuries by his mates.

There was singing, swearing, marching, mute signing while reading letters from home, laughter, tears, explosions, more marching AND bag-pipes.

Did it make me think?  Yes.  Did it change my mind about anything?  Probably not.

I still can’t quite understand why anyone would join the Army, although I know they make that choice freely.  And I know that it is young men who are the victims of war; and that latterly it is the hubris of our politicians that has taken us into our most recent wars.

One of the distinctive memories of my childhood was the constant coverage on the television of the war in Vietnam.  I don’t notice so much attention to the fighting that is going on now, other than the dryly clinical recording of the names of the dead.

Either I am inured to it, or there is genuinely less coverage; which is why to be faced with a piece of theatre which makes me focus on the humanity of armed conflict has to be worth it; and is extraordinary.

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1 Comment

  1. margaret nickels

     /  January 25, 2011

    I had a similar reaction to a play called : How many miles to Basra? On paper it did not sound too appealing but in reality it was a profoundly moving theatrical experience.


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