Black Watch is as much a play about going to war as it is a meditation on the perils of coming back. The National Theatre of Scotland‘s acclaimed production, which shifts from the bars of Fife to the deserts of Iraq, attempts to dissect the experiences of a revered and storied regiment deployed to fight an increasingly unpopular war some 3,000 miles from home.
Through sequences of increasingly breathtaking choreography, the play evokes the physical bonds of brotherhood that keep many soldiers on the battlefield despite gnawing reservations about the greater purpose of their struggle. To the production’s credit, the war is never reduced to a one-note misery trip; the tone shifts effortlessly from ribald fun, to boredom, to agony, and back again. There is even a hint of glory amid the gloom in the beauty of bodies in motion.
Some theatergoers have been surprised to learn that St. Ann’s Warehouse, which is hosting the production through December 22, is offering free tickets to veterans. As the New Yorker‘s Rebecca Mead put it rather snarkily in a recent essay on the play, seats were available “for veterans who felt inclined to revisit what they had already experienced in the theatre of war in the theatre of Dumbo.” But the point of great art – which Black Watch assuredly is – has never been merely to replicate reality. Instead, the play expresses the impossibility of understanding another man’s experience; as one soldier quips to his interviewer, “if you want to know what it’s like, then join up.”