There’s a war raging at the Paramount and no one seems to know about it. Bombs rain down like candy out of a piñata, jets scream by overhead, and the rat-tat-tat of automatic rifles ricochets around Seattle’s historic theater. With the arrival of Black Watch, Gregory Burke’s war drama inspired by the true stories of the Scottish Army regiment in Iraq, the National Theatre of Scotland has created intensely visceral theater. The audience is seated on the stage—a first at the Paramount, which covered up its 3,000 auditorium seats with planks and curtains—and is never more than a few rows back from the action.
What action there is: A dozen Scots sporting buzz cuts and Army fatigues march in lockstep across the stage, setting a rhythm with their military-issued boots. They’re constantly hitting the floor, dodging bombs and bullets conceived by director John Tiffany and his production team as flashing lights and the thunder of explosions offstage—noises that blast into your brain, rattle around your chest cavity, and prompt the need for a drink after the show. Fake war is plenty nerve-wracking. What we learn from Black Watch is how the real moments of terror are balanced by seemingly interminable stretches of boredom.
Playwright Burke conducted several interviews with members of the Black Watch, one of the most celebrated infantries in the UK's history, present in everything from Normandy to the blitz on Iraq's second-largest city, Basra, in 2003. The story he tells—and, admittedly, is a little tricky to understand given the actors’ Scottish accents—is of soldiers enticed into service by the promise of three square meals a day, travel, and “exotic poontang.” The cruder realities are cramped quarters in a box (or “wagon”) in the desert and an unpredictable enemy in suicide bombers. “I wasn’t trained for this,” says Cammy (Stuart Martin), squadron leader. How could you be?
The antiwar message of the play is clear: Why am I here? Who am I fighting? Who am I fighting for? They’re not attacking my country. Plenty of musicians, artists, and authors have wondered “War—what is it good for?” but to hear “War’s a bitch” from the soldiers’ mouths makes an impact. And rarely is the theater of war so well choreographed. If only all fist fights looked like modern dance.
Black Watch is in town through May 5, and Seattle Theatre Group is offering two-for-one tickets tonight and Wednesday.
Thru May 5, Paramount Theatre, $55 (or two for 1 at $27.50 each), military $49.50