Dueling Critics spar over National Theater of Scotland | WBEZ
Skip to main content

WBEZ Blogs

Combat! The Dueling Critics on “Black Watch”

(Manuel Harlan)

KELLY: “Black Watch,” the show by National Theatre of Scotland playing through April 10 at the Broadway Armory, tells the story of that legendary Scottish military unit as it goes through what turns out to be its final mission, during the Iraq War. Episodic by design, the show consists of individual flashbacks as members of one platoon reluctantly talk to an overawed journalist whom they are sure will never understand.

And that’s the challenge of this play, as of all plays about war: to acknowledge the gulf between civilian understanding and soldierly experience without simply succumbing to it.  Black Watch, as loud and crashing and physical and foul-mouthed as it is, is more successful at making clear how clueless the audience is than at educating us. When the performance is over, we know that war involves a lot of death, but we still don’t have any idea what it feels like. Jonathan, you probably joined the standing ovation at the end while I sat stony-faced.  Defend yourself.

JONATHAN: I’m wearing my body armor, Kelly, because I thought this was a spectacular presentation and a memorable theatrical creation. The 10-man cast is daringly physical, astonishingly athletic and frequently balletic as well. But then, you’ll probably say that you’ve seen it all at the Cirque de Soleil. Still, as we scroll down to the fine print, I will agree with you to a degree: I found the production more impressive than the script itself. The play focuses on six survivors of the regiment, now friends and drinking mates back in Scotland, and author Gregory Burke has made a conscious decision NOT to make their stories individual or personal. So the question is, where is the heart of the play?

KELLY: The heart, dear Brutus, is in the regiment itself: there’s more attention paid to the storied history of the Black Watch and the tragedy of its consolidation with other units of the Royal Army than there is to the fates of these individuals, or of the people they’re fighting with, or for—as one character says in response to a question, “What’ve the Iraqis got to do with it?” I can’t really empathize with mourning a unit of war-making when there’s so much actual death to mourn.  

There are beautiful moments, all of them collective: when every member of the company receives a letter from home and all respond in beautifully gestural sign language; when a trio of flying harnesses re-create death in slow motion better than most movies. But when all’s said and done, not only are the characters not individual—they’re collectively repellant, with their ceaseless misogyny and relentless cursing. You know, Jonathan—the parts you enjoyed.

JONATHAN: Fookin’ right, I enjoyed them! Actually, it was a bit overwhelming even for me. Authentic, yes (I’ve acted in a famous Brit military drama and lived in the UK), but perhaps unnecessarily so if it becomes a point of distraction. What struck me more is that the Scots lads of this famous Highlands regiment are violence-prone to begin with by almost every social measure one can raise: they are mostly adolescents, working class and under-employed. They are placed in a military culture and pressure-cooked in combat. I don’t think there’s anything exclusively Scots about these circumstances nor particularly original. Still, the play’s use of vocal and instrumental Scots music and beautiful, complex staging frequently supplied the emotional content missing in the words. But, Kelly, I gather you have no sympathy either for the working class or our men and women in uniform, you Commie, you!

KELLY: I have sympathy a-plenty, but I’m more likely to spend it on needless loss of life than on an interruption in the thread of military history. I admire the boldness and sincerity of the actors as much as that of the characters they play, but just as I want to know what we’re fighting for, I want to know what we’re watching this play for, and at the end of the day (as the British say) “Black Watch” doesn’t tell me.

JONATHAN: War and warriors: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. I suppose that’s the strength and tragedy of “Black Watch” and also, arguably, its limitation. I think it a small irony that this large production is being presented in a former Illinois National Guard facility, now part of the Chicago Park District.

Presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater as part of its World’s Stage Series, the National Theatre of Scotland production of “Black Watch” continues at the Broadway Armory (5917 N. Broadway) through April 10.

Critic’s Pick from Kelly:All in Love is Fair” at Black Ensemble Theater. BET usually does bio-pics of Motown musical figures, but in this case it adapts the jukebox musical to the story of the invented town of Love, Illinois, where all the love affairs are above average. Featuring the music of Luther Vandross but including everything from “The Way We Were” to “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (though not the song from which the title comes, as it happens), "All in Love" includes show-stopping performances from virtually every member of its 13-person cast. It’s a complete blast, and it’s the final show in BET’s theater at the Jane Addams Hull House on Beacon Street so don’t miss it.   

Critic’s Pick from Jonathan: If you take five good singers, a dazzling pianist and 36 songs by Rodgers & Hammerstein, it’s kinda-sorta hard to go wrong. Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre has done precisely that in “Some Enchanted Evening,” its newest musical revue at the very intimate No Exit Café in Rogers Park. The white, marbleized platform set is a bit overwhelming for the space but there’s no argument with music. No talk, no history of R&H, just pure music and most of it familiar and all of it sung with heart. “Some Enchanted Evening” continues through April 30.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.