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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Riveting Production of Black Watch


The Cast of Black Watch
Photo by Scott Suchman
Black Watch, a production of The National Theatre of Scotland, has been traveling the world and has arrived in San Francisco as part of the American Conservatory Theater season. This amazing production was too large to transport on a proscenium stage so it is being presented in the large stadium style on the drill court of the Armory Community Center.

The production focuses on the Black Watch regiment's controversial deployment to Camp Dogwood in Iraq's "Triangle of Death" in October of 2004. With miserably maladroit timing, the government had chosen that moment to radically shake up the British army, suggesting the Black Watch be merged into a new Scottish super regiment. There was indignation at this prospect, since this was the oldest Highland regiment "golden thread" for nearly three centuries that had bound generations of fathers and sons.

The audience sits on two sides of a long playing space as Black Watch entwines the history of the regiment with its services in Iraq and the story of the play's creation. A group of young men sit around a pub while the fervent, uncomfortable Writer interviews the mistrustful veterans of the Watch. The pub magically becomes battlefield locations in many scenes. A pool table becomes a vehicle transporting six soldiers and a solid metal door becomes a wall of lockers. These conversions are enthralling.

The audience sees this band of brothers through the eyes of the nervous interviewer. He asks na´ve outsider questions about their experiences in Iraq. We see that these persons are dignified human beings. They have fierce tribal loyalty and a sense of ritual with kilts, pipes and the red hackle on their Tam O'Shanter. If these guys had not been in uniform they might have had careers in the pits or shipyards of Scotland.

The imaginative choreography by Steven Hoggett and Davey Anderson's music are mesmerizing, illustrating the military precision of drills, marching, securing a perimeter and the chaos of bodies blown in the air. All are brilliantly, overpoweringly transformed. There are superb small and large video screens that transport the audience from combat surveillance to the political battles in the Parliament about the use of the Black Watch in Iraq.

The exploration of the past, present and the future of the Black Watch are not told with heroic panache. Rather, this is a clear-eyed, even-handed look at the realities of war through the eyes of the expectant songs of Scotland. It is about the rush of battle and the depression that can follow, and the complexity of fighting new kinds of enemies who blow themselves up.

Black Watch is interspersed with set pieces that are astonishing outbreaks of light, sound and exciting physical theatre. As Cammy narrates the rich history of the Black Watch, the other soldiers maneuver him with lyric ballet movement around the stage and dress him in and out of a series of the regiment's uniforms from 1745 to the present.

Stuart Martin is charismatic as the tall, reserved Campbell or Cammy (all the soldiers go by their nicknames). Robert Jack is perfect as the uncomfortable Writer interviewing the soldiers. Stephen McCole gives an excellent performance as Cammy's serious and compassionate officer who wonders why the Watch is in Iraq. As he puts it, the reason they are there is "for petrol and porn."

The Black Watch runs through June 16th at the Armory Community Center, 333 14th Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or online at www.act-sf.org. Also running is Tom Stoppard's masterwork Arcadia at the Geary Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, through June 9th.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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