Theater Preview: Black Watch

Miss last year’s sold-out run of The National Theatre of Scotland‘s award-winning production of Black Watch ? You’re in luck. NTS has returned to DC and the Shakespeare Theatre Company for an extended stay through October 7. Created by playwright Gregory Burke from interviews of Scottish soldiers, it details the experiences of those who served in the Iraq War as members of the legendary regiment, the Black Watch. This production uses fast-paced, inventive movement to tell a story that often gets lost in the fog of war.

“We’re not out here to tell anybody it was wrong to invade Iraq,” director John Tiffany said at the media preview yesterday, “We’re out to tell the story of the people who were out there. It’s our duty to know what they experienced if we’re going to ask them to fight for us.”

It’s easy in Washington to feel burned out by policy talk, and I’m ashamed to admit that when I first saw Black Watch was returning, I didn’t feel compelled to see it. Yesterday’s preview changed my mind, and I urge you to see this production. This is a powerful human story of men thrust into the alternating horror and boredom of war. The play succeeds in bringing them back to the forefront of our thoughts, where they rightfully belong. As Tiffany told me, “It’s about people, not politics.”

It’s fitting that the theater company behind this production is dedicated to innovation and inclusion. In addition to being the director of Black Watch and part of the original creative team that developed it, Tiffany serves as associate director for the NTS. The company doesn’t have an actual theater building, which is radically different from the way most regional theaters operate. At their founding in 2005, Tiffany explained, it was decided that rather than use the funds towards the development and subsequent maintenance of a physical space, that money would be used towards the artists and the work. Eclectic spaces ranging from warehouses, auditoriums, even ferries and airports, all serve as performance venues. This flexibility results in NTS reaching a much wider audience than a traditionally-based company. Black Watch itself was first performed in an armory. “We see the whole of Scotland as our stage,” Tiffany said.

He’s also passionate about making theater that young audiences have to see. One of the highest compliments he’s been paid was being told, “Me and my friends talk about going to the next National Theatre of Scotland show the way we talk about going to the next gig.” NTS’s influences are as likely to be pop music and contemporary art as they are to be the stalwarts of literature. Black Watch reflects that style, and just the few snippets of scenes witnessed at the preview demonstrate a raw vibrancy.

I also spoke with actors Ryan Fletcher and Scott Fletcher, who happen to be brothers. They’ve toured extensively in Black Watch, switching off roles, and actually it was seeing Ryan in the 2006 production that inspired Scott to be an actor. They find that American audiences really get the Scottish humor of the play, and given the Scottish heritage of many Americans, come across audience members who have a personal family connection to the regiment’s history itself. That history is brilliantly outlined in a sequence detailing the changing uniforms of the Black Watch through its nearly three hundred years of existence.

The Fletchers know that actors can never fully share the experience of the soldiers they are portraying, so they are very mindful of the duty they have towards their characters. That empathy makes for powerful moments when veterans come up to them after the performance and thank them for getting it right. “In the wrong hands this play could be a very different beast,” Ryan says, “so to get their stamp of approval was better than any review.”

Despite the rave reviews and the many awards the play has garnered, this company remains humble, dedicated to simply telling a story that would not otherwise be heard. It deserves to be shared.

The National Theatre of Scotland performs Black Watch at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall now through October 7. Located at 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Closest Metro stop: Gallery Place/Chinatown (Red/Yellow/Green). For more information call 202.547.1122.  

As one of the founding editors of We Love DC, Jenn’s passions are theater and cocktails. After two decades in the city, she’s loved every quirky, mundane, elegant, rude minute of her DC life. A proud advocate for DC’s talented drinks scene, she’s judged the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s ARTINI contest, the DC Rickey Month contest, the Jefferson Hotel’s Quill Cocktail competition, and is a founding member of LUPEC DC. A graduate of Catholic University’s drama program, she toured the country as a member of National Players, and has been both an actor and a costume designer before jumping the aisle to theater criticism. Send your suggestions to jenn (at) welovedc (dot) com and follow her on Twitter.

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