Theatre Review: Black Watch at the Broadway Armory

Bright blue and white lights spin around the Broadway Armory, illuminating faces in the crowd. We’re forewarned in the program to expect explosion, strobe and strong language; a cheerful but direct pre-show announcement tells us to identify the exits (each equipped with a medic) in case of emergency. Hence, I start the experience expecting a Scottish rock concert.

With a loud burst of pre-show bagpipe and swelling sound effect, the show begins. Ten male actors spend that next hour and fifty minutes (without a break) going to war, fighting both in it and against it. We bounce between post-war interviews in a pool hall into actual combat itself. Unlike the Iraq desert, a setting usually characterized by sand, sky and sunlight is presented with colorful blues and purples, constantly reminding us that we’re not watching an attempt to perfectly re-enact war but an attempt to imagine it. Explosions are so amplified they rattle my ribcage. In this world, regimental pageantry is free to break from strict march formations and often evolves into highly stylized, yet specific choreography. Simply, it delivers the spectacle.

But to define “The Black Watch” as pure entertainment, a visual and aural feast, would be a crime. What The National Theatre of Scotland brings in sensory spectacle, it delivers ten times as much in emotional connection and political importance.

“The Black Watch” does something no American theatre company can; put the Iraq war, one of the most divisive events and issues in America under a microscope, fearlessly illuminating and questioning what it means and how individuals and entire countries fit into it. Their non-American nationality is not the only thing that allows them to successfully carry out their message; they way in which the story is told is essential to its success.

If I wanted to increase my knowledge about war, I’d read the news or Band of Brothers. “The Black Watch” is brilliantly constructed like a collage. At times, we step back and get a general overview – the scenes all put together evoke large and philosophical questions about honor in the modern world and what it means to win or lose a war.  When experiencing it however, we see each photograph, each layer; we hear each individual voice of the regiment begging for answers to specific questions about male identity, the negative implications about joining the military, and what we fight for on every level (from the right to enjoy pornography to a right for control).

In a time where the world is turning itself inside out from tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, and wars this piece could not have more an important moral echo for Americans. By bringing this essential piece of art and political discourse to the Chicago community Chicago Shakespeare Theatre proves itself an astute part of a global dialogue – that it’s fingers are on the pulse of what is immediately important.

The National Theatre of Scotland achieves what Chicago artists seem to believe is impossible; unearthing personal, global and philosophical questions without getting in my face, sweating spitting and crying ten feet in front of me. Within the grand scale of the Broadway Armory, packed with explosions, choreography, concert-lighting and men in uniform, “The Black Watch” manages to balance the hyper-sensory (within an intensely masculine world) with entertainment and spectacle. The National Theatre of Scotland shows us that war is not a game to be won or lost but a real, violent, and ultimately vulnerable thing to engage. The Scots demonstrate an obvious mastery of the art to be envied and emulated by Chicago theatre.

Perhaps I mistook the spinning lights and moving flags that welcomed me into the Armory for pure glitz when really it all comes back to the heartbeat of the piece. The lights are searching; scanning the audience, the community, America for it means to be a soldier, an artist, a man, and a community.