Theatre Review: Black Watch

The National Theatre of Scotland is approximately 3300 Km from Toronto. Under normal circumstances, seeing a show there would involve a lot of money, time, jetlag, and hangovers, as the last time I was in Scotland I somehow ended up drinking the volume of a small bathtub every day.

So, I owe the Luminato Festival a debt of thanks. Their importation of the NTS's Black Watch saved me a handful of cash and spared my liver the vagaries of a week in Glasgow. And as a happy bonus, it was a pretty damn amazing show to boot.

Black Watch is about a few things. It's about a group of soldiers as they make their way through the hellish realities of Iraq. The play also charts the rise and fall of the Black Watch Regiment itself, serving as a kind of elegy for the history and tradition it represented until being disbanded in 2006. But at it's heart, this is a play about the destructive pointlessness of the Iraqi conflict, and its ability to warp and damage everything it touches. To paraphrase one character, it took 300 years of history to make the Black Watch, and the western world's greatest foreign policy disaster to destroy it.

And the show is bloody good. Full disclosure: I'm a bit of a military history buff, so I am predisposed to enjoying this kind of thing. But I defy anyone to find a more innovative, bold and important work of theatre on a Toronto stage this year. The play itself is an unflinching portrait of soldiers and war, and doesn't wimp out in it's portrayal of violence or suffering, emotional or otherwise. It's also a deeply sympathetic to the soldiers it portrays, in the vein of "war sucks, but soldiers are awesome" narrative of films like Black Hawk Down. It's a common theme in war stories, but Black Watch somehow finds a level of urgency and honesty largely absent elsewhere.

Part of this comes from the excellent cast who, to a person, brings humanity, depth and humour to their roles. Even the more supporting roles seem fully realized, an impressive accomplishment given the powerful stereotypes associated with soldiers. The characters feel like real people who also happen to be soldiers, immediately amping up the emotional impact of their experiences.

But the real star of this show is the staging. Director John Tiffany has done a masterful job in creating a production that is high-energy and fast-paced, yet with profoundly moving moments of stillness.It's big and loud, but also thoughtful and emotionally complex. And there is plenty of imaginative stagecraft on display. There's music, movement and some truly impressive visual moments. I don't want to ruin any of visual surprises, but the bit where a character gives 300 years of history in about five minutes is genius.

Black Watch is an important piece of theatre that enjoys a mind-blowingly good production. You should see this show. Like, right now. It continues at the Varsity Arena until June 15. But don't delay- many of the performances are already sold out. For tickets, visit http://www.uofttix.ca/ or call 416 978 8849.

Photo: Emun Elliot as Fraser. By Manuel Harlan.