‘Black Watch’ Is Worth Watching

BY Spencer Michels  May 22, 2013 at 12:12 PM EST

'Black Watch'; photo by Scott Suchman The cast of the National Theatre of Scotland’s “Black Watch” performs at the Armory Community Center in San Francisco. Photos by Scott Suchman.

Have you ever thought of marching, fighting soldiers as ballet dancers? In a play called “Black Watch”, now intriguing audiences in San Francisco, a troupe of Scottish actors, all male, spends nearly two hours strutting across the stage, choreographed as if they were dancers.

They are part of the National Theatre of Scotland, and for the past eight years their play has been performed, first in Scotland, then around the world, including highly acclaimed runs in Brooklyn, N.Y., Chicago and Seattle. The venue for the production is not a regular theater, but a basketball court-like setting, in this case the drill court in an old armory in San Francisco’s working class Mission District. The audience sits on either side of the court, in bleacher-like seats.

The dozen or so actors turn the court into a training facility, a war zone, a parade grounds and regimental headquarters. The locale is mostly Iraq, where the Black Watch Regiment, storied for its roles in battles for three centuries, has come to aid the Americans and uphold the honor of the British Empire, Scotland and the regiment itself. These mostly young soldiers have no idea why they are fighting, and most of the time they don’t seem to care.

No, the soldiers do not wear kilts in Iraq, and bagpipes don’t continually blare through the hall. The language is consistently obscene, but the audience doesn’t flinch at the torrent of vulgarities. It comes with the male military territory and with the heavy Scottish brogue that is mostly understandable by American audiences.

'Black Watch'The Scots have no obvious stake in Iraq; they’re part of the coalition President George W. Bush has assembled to carry on the battle against — well, against whom?

So, like the universal soldier, these Scottish grunts talk about female conquests they wish they made, about food they wish they could eat, and dangers they wish they could avoid up the road. But they can’t, of course. Death is part of the experience in Iraq and in this theatrical production.

What distinguishes “Black Watch” from a lot of war dramas is that it is not propaganda, not mere anti-war rhetoric, not a slam at any particular politician. It is life enhanced and imaginatively made into theater by writer Gregory Burke, director John Tiffany and, of course, the actors.

San Francisco audiences are lucky to have this dramatic depiction available to them until June 16. It’s a shame the American run ends after that, but it seems likely this is one of those plays that will get revived and retold, with or without the brogue.