ARTYFACTS: Blackwatch – Barbican - you WILL be moved

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Blackwatch – Barbican - you WILL be moved

A lot of theatre is just damn parochial and irrelevant. We actually have 'Calendar Girls' on at the Theatre Royal Brighton. Who watches this stuff? So let me praise something that’s jackhammer powerful, brilliantly staged and relevant. I don’t mean relevant in the sense of some poxy, after-theatre, wind-down conversation. I mean something that makes you rethink the current Iraq/Afghanistan war, something that gives you insight into a world you have never had any contact with, something that stays in your mind for days.

I was brought up in the sort of place that produces Scottish soldiers, where a few from every class went to join the army (never navy or airforce). It was part tradition, part escape from limited opportunities, part comradeship. ‘Join the army and see the world’ was the slogan when I was at school. Loads did and never saw further than Northern Ireland, which is really Scotland with guns. So I know that they got the dialogue real and right, the pub talk, the bravado, but also the matey support.

The play rightly focuses on the boys and their regiment, and isn’t sentimental. The Blackwatch were founded to ‘watch’ the highlanders, and as the writer reminds us, also fought, during the first World War in Mesopotania, namely Iraq. But the smart young squaddie, ‘I had you marked down for sergeant Major’ saw through the futility of the campaign, the suicide bombing, the fact that we’re invading THEIR country and fucking THEIR day up. The device of using a journalist to interrogate the lads works as a lightening rod for their anger at being ‘used’ as well as a conduit for their views.

It’s a brave play, as it transforms the limitations of Scottish, working-class dialogue through unspoken acts – sign language on reading letters from home, choreographed violence among themselves, dance, song and music. You bounce between the pub and Iraq, between all the noisy bravado of the pub and noise of war. Most of all you feel the pain of the lads who saw their mates die. They’ve barely begun to live a life, when they see their closest friends blown to bits in a suicide attack. It’s harrowing and heartbreaking. I can barely write this sentence without being overcome by sadness, and anger. Go see this – you WILL be moved.


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