EmptyUCLA Live's Freud Playhouse, Westwood
Through Oct. 14
Contrary to the hype about its being a controversial anti-war spectacle, and despite the assaulting physical context in which it takes place, "Black Watch" turns out to be at its core a gently lyrical and intimate drama.
While the warning posted at the boxoffice that "Black Watch" contains "strong language, loud explosions and strobe lighting" is true enough, after the initial shock of the explosions and the torrent of profanity wears off, it is the play's exploration of men's hearts that primarily occupies the stage.
Based on the suicide killing during the current Iraq invasion of three soldiers from a storied Scottish regiment, Gregory Burke's play follows a group of soldiers forced to connect with and make sense of their feelings while coping with war. For, despite the external dangers they face, the greatest threat to their survival comes from their universal need to maintain their individual, group and national identities.
In fact, the play's main indictment is less of the Iraq War than of war in general, and specifically the effect of this war on this one Scottish regiment. In order to do so, director John Tiffany has created a highly imaginative physical environment for the production that enables and encourages personal involvement.
This means bringing the audience onto the stage where the soldiers, seen mostly in their barracks and only occasionally in anything resembling fighting mode, occasionally burst into either highly stylized, choreographed movement and dance, or ritualized song, blending elements taken from pop culture and old-time British music hall (emphasized by the incongruously clean uniforms they wear).
The overall impact resonates strongly with famous films about the military like "Tunes of Glory" and "The Hill," in which the ambiguous needs and virtues of comradeship trumps all others considerations. Nor is Tiffany shy at forcing the audience to see how the intense stresses of war force open fissures in male sexual posturing, reflected in their use of "cunt" for both friends and foe, and as both an indicator of disdain and affection.
The flashbacks in which the story is told are triggered by an apparent if somewhat synthetic confrontation between the soldiers and various media groups: on one hand "researchers" who are hoping to create the theatrical experience we are watching; and on the other, the exploitative global media.
The presence and role of the war itself is notable mainly for its characteristics of a faceless guerilla foe as a timeless theme; none of the actual combat is shown onstage, only related by participants. There is no moaning of wounded, broken bodies, no screams.
There is little sense of the individual "stories" of the men beyond a few hints and fragments, so it is up to the actors to create the characters with which they must enlist the audience's sympathy. They do a magnificent job, though it is so profoundly a team effort that it would be unfair to single out any one above the others.
However, as riveting as "Black Watch" is, it is surprisingly noncontroversial. Perhaps UCLA Live can be persuaded to present a play about American citizens under bombardment at home by the political struggles over the Middle East.
Presented by National Theatre of Scotland
Playwright: Gregory Burke
Director: John Tiffany
Associate director (movement): Steven Hoggett
Associate director (music): Davey Anderson
Set designer: Laura Hopkins
Sound designer: Gareth Fry
Lighting designer: Colin Grenfell
Costume designer/wardrobe supervisor: Jessica Brettle
Macca: David Colvin
Stewarty: Ali Craig
Fraz: Emun Elliott
Kenzie: Ryan Fletcher
Officer: Jack Fortune
Writer-Sergeant: Paul Higgins
Rossco: Henry Pettigrew
Nabsy: Nabil Stuart
Cammy: Paul Rattray
Granty: Jordan Young