Wednesday, 16 July 2008

"There will be no victory parade for us"- Black Watch at The Barbican

It's on until July 26th. Why haven't you bought a ticket? No, I care not for your feeble excuses. The website is here. Get in line for a late return. It's a very long line but it's your own fault for not being more organised. Or just bribe someone on their way in. That will cost you. A lot. However you do it is irrelevant. You do have to do it. Go and see Black Watch at the Barbican.

So many people, both for and against the Iraq War, have given scant consideration to the human tragedy at the conflict's centre. Gregory Burke's production, Black Watch, following a battalion of the Black Watch Regiment, casts politics, the media, and the public to the periphery though they all occasionally dart back to centre stage lest we forget, lest any of us abdicate responsibility. Instead we are forced to confront the basic and human morality of a group of young Scottish lads on a tour of duty into the 'Triangle of Death.'

Black Watch is not just a scathing confrontation of the remorseless regularity of seemingly futile conflict. It gives a voice to lost generations of Britons let down by leaders in generation after generation. A particularly memorable scene details the history of the Black Watch. Its golden thread expanded the British Empire, fought in Crimean, Boer, and two world wars. It lost in the American War of Independence but won Mesopotamia. 'Where have I heard that before?' asks one of the squaddies.

But the theme of the play is the breaking of this golden thread that connects one generation of Black Watchers to the next, Grandfather, father, and son. It is a military covenant. More importantly, it's a social covenant. The stability of Regimental history interplays with the decline of mines, of shipbuilding, of history. Stack shelves in Tesco's or angle for military glory? No competition.

The play's message is that self-worth is deprived from this group of friends. All they want is their moment of greatness. Rupa Huq rightly compares Black Watch to Trainspotting and it confronts similar themes. These guys do not abandon the galleon of society, they man its cannons. Renton and Sickboy, Trainspotting's central figures, fly off in precisely the opposite direction to Cammy and crew but they are flung from the same waltzer. The Black Watchers do not 'choose life.' They choose glory. When it is not forthcoming, they are left with nothing but the raging emptiness of hope denied.

Ultimately, the Regiment's golden thread is broken when Black Watch is taken over by the Royal Highland Regiment. Now a battalion, once more a generation is let down just at its toughest time.

Re-reading this review, I can't help feeling that I've made it sound heavier than it is. There are some really touching moments, raw humour, a bit of fun, and some incredible songs and dances. It is powerful not preachy, poignant but not manipulative. Like the bar with Sky Sports and the pool table in which the play begins and continually returns, it is what it is. And it is superb.

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