Best of a decade: Black Watch premieres in Edinburgh
Powerful, dramatic and beautiful, Black Watch defined Scottish theatre of the last decade. Kirstin Innes talks to writer Gregory Burke about the play’s extraordinary success
Every decade, there seems to be one cultural event that shifts the way we Scots look at ourselves, and the way the world looks at us. In the 1990s, there was the Trainspotting juggernaut: book, play, film, tie-in-soundtrack, poster. In the 2000s, what got us thinking was another explosive work written by a former football casual about a group of working-class men.
Gregory Burke’s Black Watch, commissioned and directed by the National Theatre of Scotland, premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2006, at the former University of Edinburgh Officer Training Corps drill hall. It played to standing ovations and tear-stricken audiences whose numbers included Sean Connery and Prince Charles. It was televised nationally, toured Scotland, then to New York and London, where it won four Olivier Awards. ‘The reaction – god, it’s scary!’ says Burke. ‘London. New York. You couldn’t write this as a script – you’d be accused of being a fantasist!’
It’s not once, but twice this decade that Burke has created theatre to make the country wake up and take a startled look at itself. In 2001 his filthy, funny, Tarantino-esque debut Gagarin Way cut through a wave of late-90s poor-me introspection and bloated New Labour platitudes to take a sharp look at unemployment and failing ideologies in formerly left-wing working-class communities in Fife. It also identified him as the perfect person to help the newly formed National Theatre of Scotland reflect an issue relevant to the whole country – as was their brief – and respond to the huge news story of the (Fife-based) Black Watch regiment’s deployment to Basra.
‘In 2004, when the regiment had been basically put under American leadership, and there was all this controversy in the news, Vicky [Featherstone], who had just been made director of the NTS, phoned me and said, “I’m not giving out commissions, but since you’re from Fife and know people in the army, can you follow the story?”’
What marked Black Watch out from the hundreds of Iraq-set pieces of verbatim theatre which have marked the stage this decade was its artistry and theatricality. Director John Tiffany’s production used choreography, traditional song and incidental music, and some quite stunning theatrical devices to express the squaddies’ lives in a piece of art.
‘Originally, we thought it was going to be a piece of verbatim theatre,’ remembers Burke, ‘just a bunch of people sitting around reading the transcripts of what these squaddies had to say. I had to wait until New Year 2006 to actually talk to them, though, after they’d served in Camp Dogwood, and I already had a second, fictional script based on what I’d been reading about Iraq, and in the end, combining the two, the play became a fictional telling of a real incident.’
Where Trainspotting, set in the 1980s, was a look back – a portrait of a group of self-interested individuals linked by proximity and a common want – Black Watch engages immediately with the international event which continues to cast the biggest shadow over the decade, but filters it through the lens of a local, Scottish, community. One of the biggest – one of the only – criticisms levelled at the play was that, in glorifying the military and the history of the regiment, it propounded a right-wing agenda.
‘For me, it wasn’t about politics at all,’ says Burke. ‘Critics can come in and say “oh, this was right wing” – well, most of the guys I was speaking to, most soldiers are quite right wing. I wasn’t sticking up for anything, I just wanted to talk about warfare and the soldiers that do it. That was all we wanted to do.’