Thrilling, Stirring

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A good friend of mine and avid reader of this blog asked me recently whether he should see this “X” show or this “Y” show this weekend, and my response to him was – “If you are going to the theater this weekend in Chicago, why would you go to anything other than Black Watch?”  And I don’t mean that statement as any form of disrespect to the many, many terrific shows currently onstage in Chicago, but as an unqualified, enthusiastic tribute to what is certainly the best play I have seen this year so far (and in the top five of the past couple of years), the National Theatre of Scotland’s globally-heralded depiction of soldiers from the famous Scottish regiment while they are deployed in Iraq, brought to our city by Chicago Shakespeare TheatreBlack Watch is the reason why I go to the theater – it impressively, searingly co-mingles idiosyncratic theatricality with raw, powerful emotions, and a pointed, insightful engagement with the issues and concerns of our contemporary world.  It is theater at it’s very, very finest and most memorable, and shame on you if you call yourself a passionate Chicago theatergoer and you haven’t run out yet to get your ticket to this unmissable theatrical moment.

Just like one of my favorite movies of the past couple of years, Oscar best picture winner The Hurt Locker, Black Watch portrays with ferocious clarity the experience of young soldiers while stationed in Iraq, and the lives they try to pick up when they return home from the battlefront. It is a play that both infuriates and saddens you- that young people in the prime of their youth are being sent to either die, or be physically and emotionally scarred, from a war that is a failure of sensible and meaningful foreign policy-making.  One of the most stomach-punching lines in the play is when the lead character, Cammy (a terrific Jack Lowden) says that the soldiers of the Black Watch are doing a job that is really not their job – they signed up to defend their country against an enemy, but the people they are fighting are not their country’s enemies.  Writer Gregory Burke also honestly and vividly depicts the life of a soldier in the field – the long stretches of boredom and waiting for something to happen, the dreadful and gut-wrenching anxiety of being shot at or blown up, the competitive but devoted camaraderie and esprit d’corps, and, yes, even the covert homoeroticism of young men confined in tight places together (one of the many memorable “movement” scenes is the intimate, Greco-Roman like wrestling of brawling platoon mates, at the end of which the Sergeant barks – “you guys should stop this before one of you c_ms”.  Really!).

Although Burke’s storytelling is beautifully-rendered, we have seen these themes before in other films or plays about war and soldiers.  What elevates and differentiates Black Watch, in my opinion, is the bold, exceptionally well-thought out theatricality in the staging that director John Tiffany and his creative team bring to the play.  Movement, song, dance, video projections, news footage, bagpipes, a visual palette and a flourish to the scene transitions and storytelling that are very much cinematic in nature, are used throughout the play to startling impact.  The play is filled with so many memorable moments, for me, because of Tiffany’s and his team’s dazzling achievement:  the soldiers reading letters from home and  then using sign language to express their mixed joy and heartbreak, so poignant and affecting; the hybrid circus and dance presentation of the history of the Black Watch as Cammy is passed around by the ensemble and dressed up or down in the regiment’s evolving uniforms though the ages;  the numerous musical numbers that move the story along and never feel illogical or out-of-place; a stunning, and lengthy, marching formation at the end of the play with the soldiers falling down in exhaustion or misstep, which comes off more like a scene from a Sergei Eisenstein film or Saving Private Ryan, then from a play that originated in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  And Tiffany’s innovative staging techniques are greatly aided by a marvelous, intense, peerless, in perfect-lock-step (pun intended) ensemble cast, who can switch seamlessly between physicality, character drama, and musical theater – in addition to Lowden, standouts also include Jamie Quinn, a soldier on his second tour of duty who brings the fecklessness of someone who’s been there and done that, and original cast member Paul Higgins, who plays both the Sergeant and a playwright interviewing the returning soldiers. If there is a perfect production, it’s Black Watch.

And what makes this already perfect production extra-special in its Chicago engagement is that it is performed within the cavernous halls of the Broadway Armory, in Edgewater, which was used, for decades, by the Illinois National Guard for its training exercises.  Chicago is the only stop in the Black Watch US tour which has offered a non-traditional, site-specific staging. To see this play about the horror of war and the dignity of those who fight in it, in a place where both hover in its aged rafters and brick walls, is an unparalleled experience.

If I still haven’t convinced you to see Black Watch, then there’s nothing more I can say.  The show runs until April 10 at the Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway.  Tickets are available through the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre website,

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One Response to “Thrilling, Stirring”

  1. Esther Says:

    I was fortunate to see Black Watch at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in 2008 and it was unforgettable. What a stunning, imaginative work for all the reasons you mention. I’m not big on war stories but this was so different.

    You’re right about the range of emotions and the way music and movement and sound effects are combined to tell the story of this regiment. The history of the Black Watch is a perfect example of delivering what could have been dry exposition in a unique and totally engaging manner.

    I think it’s a tribute to the acting company that the soldiers kind of blended together in my mind – maybe it was also a function of their thick accents! But that’s how they see themselves, as a unit. In the beginning, the soldiers didn’t seem very likable but by the end I respected them for what they’d gone through, for their sacrifice.

    It’s interesting, I saw Brief Encounter on Broadway last fall and a few years ago I saw The 39 Steps, two British productions that were very imaginative in the “way” they told their stories. And I’m going back to New York in couple weeks to see War Horse. I can’t wait to see the lifelike horse puppets.

    And I just wonder, are there American theatre companies that are thinking outside the box in a similar fashion.

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