The Black Watch is a highly decorated, centuries-old Scottish infantry battalion that has fought in major conflicts, from Burma to Basra, since the 1700s. The highly decorated Black Watch from the National Theater of Scotland is a haunting, funny, and startlingly physical play—sometimes using bits of unostentatious choreography to communicate what words cannot.
It is an intimate show, and the cavernous Paramount Theater has reduced its seating capacity from 3,000 to 419 for the occasion. The audience sits on the stage, just feet away from 10 tightly wound actors who spring from a Scottish barroom to Iraqi battlefields and back again. During one transition, soldiers are birthed from the inside of a pool table, cutting its red felt open from below with a long blade and standing back-to-back on its top with long guns in hand, nervously scanning the audience.
As I sat before the show with my father—a career military man and veteran of multiple wars—I asked if he'd heard of the Black Watch. "Oh yes," he said, "definitely." And what are they best known for? "Solidarity." Solidarity is key to the characters' identity: The Watch recruits mostly from four locales (Perthshire, Fife, Dundee, and Angus), and members proudly enumerate the battles their fathers, and grandfathers, and great-grandfathers have fought in. (In the program, several actors also list male relatives who've served with the Black Watch.) But when they get to Iraq, things begin to fracture. They feel less like warriors than pawns in an American political game, which also happens—as one commander puts it—to be one of the greatest foreign-policy disasters in Euro-American history.
You can guess at the play's tragedies, from death to confusion to pent-up male anger that explodes in bad ways. But it is also hauntingly tender, such as when, quietly, off to the side in the middle of some unrelated dialogue, three men arrange themselves on a pool table, cues in an obscure formation, like ghosts. And it can be genuinely funny, such as when an older soldier teaches a greenhorn that if he carries a piece of paper around the war camp, nobody will ever bother him, because nobody wants to have to deal with another stupid order from above.