The brave and brutal ‘Black Watch’ will rattle you to the core

Black Watch is the kind of show that shakes you to the core. Not only are the grim realities of war and sacrifice played out with brutal honesty, but Gareth Fry’s sound design authentically recreates the earth-rattling soundscape accompanying the “war on terror” in Iraq.

Bring ear plugs.

The National Theatre of Scotland‘s Black Watch is a searing 110-minute, intermissionless play by Gregory Burke and directed by John Tiffany based on interviews with former soldiers in the Black Watch regiment of the British Army who served on Operation TELIC in Iraq during 2004 — an operation that lured young, unprepared soldiers into one of the most dangerous areas of Iraq with little instruction and essentially zero support.

This story would be a footnote in the history books if Burke hadn’t captured it so effectively.

As an added bonus — and it’s a huge bonus — Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, in partnership with the Chicago Park District, is presenting this production at the Broadway Armory — a space used for miliatry training by the State of Illinois during World War I, and the only armory playing host to this production through its 2011 tour. It’s a space that makes complete sense, and you’re seated right in the action.

There’s a ton to admire in this production. Things start off rather unassuming in a rural Scottish pool hall, with a bunch of rowdy former soldiers — boys, really — poking fun at each other as they reluctantly recount their time serving in the “triangle of death.” “It wasn’t what I thought it was gonna be like,” says one soldier, in an understatement of the year. “I thought it was gonna tell me something about the meaning of life.”

Then a knife pops through the pool table and two Black Watch soliders emerge from the gutted contraption with machine guns. The young boys have transformed into full-on military gear, and we’re suddenly in Iraq.

These are just a few examples of many unexpected and brilliant theatrical devices that keep this play from falling into a typical war docu-drama.

The amazing 10-person ensemble speaks through a thick Scottish brogue (at times my decidedly Midwestern ears wished for supertitles) liberally laced with profanity. This real, unstagey banter reminds you that these boys were/are friends, thick as thieves, way before enlisting. In the end, they explain that the reason they endured wasn’t for their country or the cause, but for their regiment, their team, their mates. Friends for life.

I should say I was waiting for a traditional build, climax and some sort of resolution, but that never really happened. This is war — it doesn’t follow logical sense or pattern. One minute you’re bantering with your mates about porn and pussy, the next minute you’re ducking a road-side bomb. Emotions are put aside, and you carry on.

The final moments of the play will sear into your brain. See this show. And bring those earplugs.

“Black Watch” plays through April 10 at the Broadway Armory at 5917 N. Broadway. More info here >

3 thoughts on “The brave and brutal ‘Black Watch’ will rattle you to the core

  1. I saw Black Watch at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn a few years ago and I agree – it’s utterly compelling. I’m not big on war stories but I thought the story of these soldiers was told in a way that was so imaginative and visceral. (The part where they relate the 300-year history of the Black Watch was amazing, so engaging and theatrical.)

    You really get a sense of the tedium, the fear, the longing for home, as well the toughness and pride. I think it’s a credit to the actors (and maybe to their accents) that no one in the group stood out – which is how they see themselves, as a unit.

    In the beginning, they seemed rude, boorish, profane and not very likable. But by the end, I had much more sympathy for what they’d been through. It’s really a stunning and unique work.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Esther. It’s funny: my friends who’ve caught this piece so far in its Chicago run have all told me they liked it, but it wasn’t what they were expecting. For some, that was a good thing, for others, they were a bit disappointed. However, like you said, it’s a stunning piece of work no matter how you look at it.

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