On seeing a recent student revival of his sensational 2001 debut Gagarin Way, it occurred to me that what excited us about Gregory Burke's writing was not that it was linguistically and physically graphic, nor that this was combined with a keen political sensibility. I think the foundation stone of Burke as a playwright may well be his instinctive grasp of different kinds of male relationships: camaraderie, community, rivalry are all present between his characters, but they are always talking the same language and wired for the same feelings.
His new piece Black Watch fits this hypothesis perfectly. Aware of the callous irony whereby the effective end of the Black Watch regiment was announced by the government while 800 of its men had just been sent to Iraq, Burke explores a small company's time in the Middle East, both in "present" time and in retrospect, as several former squaddies are interviewed by a character who seems to be the playwright himself. Burke's soldiers are authentically foul-mouthed and usually inarticulate except for the occasional personal or political outburst, which however does not seem at all overwritten. Above all, though, the Black Watch's centuries-long tradition of recruiting men from the same area is portrayed dramatically in a bond between even those characters who did not previously know one another, a bond of familiarity, even intimacy, and by military standards an unusual informality.
The National Theatre of Scotland's production uses a former military drill hall in which two traverse banks of audience flank a central playing area that serves as pub, drill ground and battlefield. John Tiffany's direction draws out an excellent ensemble of performances, though I do wish he would restrain his taste for interpretative movement sequences. Ten years ago Frantic Assembly, whose Steven Hoggett directs these elements, were exciting and innovative; five years ago, they were an established brand; they have now passed through the phase of being virtually mandatory and are in danger of entering that of cliché. It is these sequences which cost the production a fifth star. Far more successful is Davey Anderson's use of old regimental folk songs, which connects the present to a long and keenly felt tradition without heather-coating the current reality.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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