Black Watch, National Theatre of Scotland at the Shakespeare Theatre Company
I’m beginning to feel like a member of a secret society. I’ve been giving a lot of pointed looks, with eyebrows raised and a focused stare, asking friends, family, and strangers I meet in theatre lobbies, “Have you seen it yet?” If their answer is no, I tend to take a step back, pity in my heart and an urgent plea on my lips to rectify that tragic situation immediately. If their answer is yes, why then I have to contain myself from leaping in joy or shaking them soundly in unbridled enthusiasm. Luckily, I’m not alone in this, as I tend to find a similar reaction in fellow members of the Society. Our Society welcomes all and is generally quite egalitarian in nature, although I like to think that within our ranks, one can earn special commendations that show devotion to the cause. There’s simple evangelism, of course, but then there are the marks of the true faithful. Simply answering the question in the affirmative isn’t enough, not when the next question is a shrewd “How many times.” (Bonus points are awarded for viewings of the DVD, available only in the UK)
Because here’s the thing: Black Watch is back in town, and now I’ve seen it four times. I mentioned this with a laugh in the lobby of Sidney Harman Hall on Friday, and a few moments later, I was approached by a fellow theatregoer in the lobby, wondering why I’d seen the play three times already and was so eager for another opportunity. I’ve answered this a lot lately (it’s part of being in the Society of Those Who Have Seen Black Watch), so luckily, I had an answer ready:
It’s a story that so desperately needs to be heard, but it’s a story that’s told here with incredible beauty and truth. It’s tremendously funny. It's got fit Scotsmen. It’s perspective-altering, life-changing theatre, and it reminds me why I fell in love with this remarkable art form in the first place. I just don’t get tired of it.
The production, once more hosted by the Shakespeare Theatre Company and produced by the National Theatre of Scotland, is just as powerful as it was on its first visit to DC in 2010. Every scene rings with truth even to those of us who’ve never dreamed of entering a combat zone; even though we know we’re watching actors portray a carefully choreographed sequence of events they’ve performed hundreds of times before, each performance still feels raw, fresh, and innovative. The ensemble features a few faces we saw two years ago, as well as a few more actors DC hasn’t met before, and director John Tiffany has shaped wonderful new performances from them. The privilege of seeing a show so many times is that I can choose where I direct my gaze with much more alacrity. When I know the conversation that takes place between Cammy (Ryan Fletcher) and the Writer (Robert Jack), I can watch the exact moment that other actors begin a stylized sequence of movements at the other end of the stage (I cannot sing the praises of Assistant Director of Movement Steven Hoggett enough; it is stunning work). I can watch the way the ensemble watches each other when they’re not speaking, and I can catch each tiny shift in mood, whether the ensemble are in the pub or crammed into a Warrior armored vehicle.
Best of all, I can appreciate the myriad of ways in which Black Watch abandons the constraints of realism and instead relishes the different ways of storytelling that theatre is actually best at, from movement to music to simple reliance on the magic of imagination. The soldiers’ stories that Black Watch endeavors to tell are real enough; we don’t need to read a word of the letters the soldiers receive from home or to seek out a detailed translation of their movements in this sequence to feel the full emotional impact of the moment. By opting for stylization instead of realism, we actually gain more with the blanks left un-filled by the artists.
If I seem inclined to wax poetically, it’s only because that’s what membership in the Society tends to do to someone. Once you see the show, I trust that you’ll understand yourself. So please- go see this play. I could go on and on about why I think it’s brilliant, but at a certain point, all you the reader will start to see is hyperbolic statements that will make you less and less inclined to see the show, and that’s a tragedy I don’t want on my hands or, as they say in the show, on my trousers (pronounced TROO-zers).