Sunday, 21 April 2013

Sunday Supplement: On Theatre (Inspired by Black Watch)

http://www.nnfestival.org.uk/images/general/black_watch_home_image.jpg I've never felt entirely comfortable in the threatre. Its an uncompromisingly physical experience for me. Actors exert their physicality upon you with their voices, their movements, their projection of the self on a large scale. Even on a stage there's no hiding from the fact that they are human beings, embodied, impressive, incontrovertable. This creates in me a feeling of being attacked by things I can't control. My comfort zone is challenged, and even where that's a rewarding experience I'm left shaken up and uncertain for a while.


Its only theatre - and possibly live popular misoc - that do this to me. TV and Cinema have that difference of fixed distance between audience and performance. Classical music, ballet, dance, opera, sport: all happen in a specific place, but somehow feel less immediate. Perhaps because there's so little speech involved, which means that communication between performers and audience is indirect, translated through movement or instruments. When reading, you not only have some level of control over your physical surroundings, but more than any other artform reading invites you to collaborate in creating the art, you as reader choose consciously or subconsciously how to conjur those words on the page. Books as a safe space, a protected space. In the words of Edward P Morgan, 'a book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an expolosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man's mind can get both provocation and privacy.' It is this that attracts me to reading more than anything else.

On the other hand, as a child and teenager, the confrontation of theatre scared me. Indeed, it still does today. Yet when younger I wasn't emotionally strong enough to understand that being made uncomfortable could be the purpose of great art. That a response - any response - was preferable to nothing. Great art is valuable because it creates experiences outside the norm that enable us to understand ourselves, other people, and our environements anew.

All of which brings me to Black Watch, the National Theatre of Scotland play that has been wowing audiences and critics for the last 7 years. Moving between a bar in Fife and the front line during the Iraq war, it is based on interviews with former members of the legendary Scottish regiment. We see the experiences through their eyes, and it is accompanied with a powerful and inventive use of movement, music, and song to create a visceral, complex and urgent piece of theatre.

I loved it. The soldiers repeated assertion that they had signed up to defend their country, not attack others, was a powerful summery of all wrong with that foolish Iraq invasion. But it was about more than that. I shared its essential tennets that the boredom of war breeds a craving for violence, for anything to fill the void. But it was about more than that, too. It was about humanising soldiers, something I often need reminding of. As a pacifist, I often find it hard to rationalise a belief that violence can never be worth the destruction it causes, with the contribution that army training and identity can make to a society. Black Watch made both points effectively, dramatised the tragedies of war at its human legacy on those prosecuting it. But also regretting the disolution of the Black Watch regiment. One of the most powerful scenes involves a recreation of the history of the Black Watch, from a hired brigaid in the seventeenth century through nearly every war the UK has fought in the last 200 years. As the uniforms evolve, the wars pile up: Napoleonic, Crimean, Boer, World Wars, Korea, The Gulf, Kosovo. Relatively few defensive wars, a great number about expansion, empire, exerting will upon others.

The production itself is energetic, lively, full of swearing and practical jokes, and young men with more bravado than sense. The staging, placed in between two stands of seats facing each other, enables you to watch the reaction of other people, enables you to see the emotions it brings out in you reflected on the faces of others. 

If it felt slightly dated, if the historical argument about the value of invading Iraq largely determined, then it is probably art like this that has got us there. Black Watch says nothing new about the Iraq. But it documents those arguments, and will remain worth watching because it is ultimately about people and ideas. And because it is exceptional.

Black Watch is just short of 2 hours of moving, powerful, skilfully choreographed, well written and acted, theatre.I felt uncomfortable throughout. Yet that is the power of theatre. And I'm now strong enough to enjoy that.

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