'Black Watch' Stages Struggles of U.K.'s Elite Troops A new play follows the lives of several men of Scotland's fabled "Black Watch" regiment as they struggle to survive in Iraq. Playwright Gregory Burke and actor Jack Fortune discuss the work, which is based on stories from soldiers overheard in the pubs of Fife, Scotland.
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'Black Watch' Stages Struggles of U.K.'s Elite Troops

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'Black Watch' Stages Struggles of U.K.'s Elite Troops

'Black Watch' Stages Struggles of U.K.'s Elite Troops

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In the early 1700s, Scotland had only just become part of Great Britain. In that uneasy rebellious time, a few Highland clans decided to fight for the English king. And eventually, these men, known as the Black Watch, became Scotland's elite regiment. The Black Watch served in countless conflicts over the years, but one of the most controversial was their deployment to Iraq in 2003.

Now, a play based on the storied regiment and called "Black Watch," has opened in New York after rave review at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year.

(Soundbite of play, "Black Watch")

LYDEN: The play was commissioned by the National Theater of Scotland. It follows a Black Watch squad through the dangers of Iraq and back home again. This bare staging and the claustrophobic atmosphere make the theatergoer feel as cooped up as the soldiers in their armored personnel carrier in a desert near Basra.

Gregory Burke wrote the play.

Mr. GREGORY BURKE (Playwright): When I started to do the research - when I started to look at the history, I thought there was a much bigger story than just about Iraq. There was a story - this was the first Highland regiment (unintelligible) with the British sort of (unintelligible).

And it was the beginning of Britain as the modern entity as today. You know, I couldn't say even that. So it's almost a story about modern Scotland and modern Britain and the imperial adventures of this regiment and what part they played in the British Empire. And the other thing that was controversial is the time that the regiments were being amalgamated into - their individual status was being taken away, and they've been amalgamated into a (unintelligible) regiment of Scotland as is called now.

And the Black Watch was going to become one battalion in that. So all this -all the history, all the kind of things that people feel made that regiment special and different and made people who went (unintelligible) was going to be taken away and to a certain extent. So they became a much bigger story than just about Iraq. It became a really huge historical perspective.

LYDEN: Actor Jack Fortune plays the sergeant. He doesn't have a name in the play, just sergeant.

Fortune comes by his marshal-bearing naturally. Several members of his family served in the Black Watch.

Mr. JACK FORTUNE (Actor): Lots of people I call uncle, I think they are my godfathers. Grandfather - my grandfather joined at the beginning of - in 1903. And he served in the First World War and in the Second War World. And then my dad joins in the Second World War. And my brother joined in the '60s.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FORTUNE: And served in Cyprus and a little bit in Northern Ireland as well.

LYDEN: There was a tremendous amount of pride about the Black Watch being the elite Scottish regiment, yes?

Mr. FORTUNE: Absolutely. And I'm sure every Scottish regiment would say exactly the same thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORTUNE: But the - and there's huge rivalry and the, you know, - there are no polite nicknames for having a great job.

Mr. BURKE: No, absolutely not. You don't say - yeah, they all, you know, they can all pick fights with each other quite easily, you know.

Mr. FORTUNE: Absolutely.

LYDEN: Would you also…

Mr. BURKE: (Unintelligible) They have code words. No, I wouldn't. But they have - you just have to say a certain word in a pub and you know that you have a fight on your hands.

LYDEN: Their aggression, the tribal nature of these Scottish warriors, makes them a strangely good match for the warfare of modern Iraq. At one point, the men yell, we're Celts, we're tribes ourselves.

When playwright Gregory Burke went hunting for stories of Iraq in the pubs of Fife, Scotland, he had to buy more than one pint to loosen the tongues of the men who served.

Mr. BURKE: It was a weird process to get there, to get the stories and to get the trust. And one of the reasons I was able to do it was because I come from that area. And the group of soldiers I met, I didn't really want to speak to soldiers I knew because I didn't want that closeness. And there's always that feeling that, you know, there - some can slightly exploited to have about and making a piece of art out of something that's so very traumatic and personal experience with these guys that, they know, they share them - they share this with each other. But you're always an outsider, you know.

So they do tell you. They tell you all the funny stories and all the anecdotes and all this happened and all this of - sort of these bizarre things that happen during warfare. But one of the things of the play was they don't tell you about the emotion. They don't tell you about the, you know, the bad moments that people - when people get killed. You say, how was that in this (unintelligible) in this thing, you know. We just did our job. That's part of the job. We get on with it.

So that became why we had to find all these other mediums within the piece, to express their emotion, and because they won't tell you those things.

LYDEN: Some of the play's most affecting moments are choreographed rather than spoken. At one point, it's mail call. The soldiers pass around the flimsy blue airmail envelopes they call blueys(ph). We can sense the news in their wordless gestures.

Actor Jack Fortune's letter conjured a familiar scene from home.

Mr. FORTUNE: It's my wife saying she went for a walk by the River Earn with the kids, and the dog jumped in, and shook himself all over the kids. But he kept them looking around as if he was missing somebody. Then she says, I hope you got your soak liner(ph) in your sleeping bag. It's getting cold over here.

LYDEN: But what's the physical gesture you make?

Mr. FORTUNE: Oh, I see. How do you do this on radio, I don't know.

LYDEN: I don't know. Just to tell us what you're doing.

Mr. FORTUNE: But - well, what I did is something like - it's the gestures of what seemed to me to be walking, and then it's to do with - it's a particular part of the River Earn I know very well.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FORTUNE: Because I live there. And it's to do with remembering the trees, the lights on the water.

LYDEN: And you just know your fingers are fluttering up towards your eyes.

Mr. FORTUNE: Yeah.

LYDEN: And you've been moving your hands.

Mr. FORTUNE: I was - yes. And then just the drops in the trees…

LYDEN: (Unintelligible)

Mr. FORTUNE: …because it's on a damp afternoon.

LYDEN: Now, your fingers are…


LYDEN: …tapping into the palm of the other hand.

Mr. FORTUNE: Yeah.

LYDEN: It's extremely beautiful - sign language is, of course. But when you see these soldiers, I mean, after a moment, you realize, no, it's not actual. You know, they are not spelling letters. They're actually making gestures. It's - there are many moments like that in which movement has been used to stand in for things that are almost too painful to express.

Mr. FORTUNE: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. That was - the thing about blueys, that came from - with one of the things soldiers gave us was lots of photographs. And that one of the soldiers gave us like two or 300 photographs from - taken from Dogwood. And the only one…

LYDEN: Camp Dogwood.

Mr. FORTUNE: …where they weren't doing the usual lean up to the camera, being aggressive, all standing with their guns, you know. All that's are macho stuff. It was guy reading a letter in the background. And he was completely away. He was just sitting and it's like, just with this letter and there's smile on his face.


Mr. FORTUNE: And he said, you know, that - he was transported over that place and that's where the whole sequence came from, that one photograph.

(Soundbite of play, "Black Watch")

LYDEN: At least 11 Black Watch service men have been killed in action and many more wounded. You depict a suicide bombing here, which is just haunting. What do they tell you about that actual incident and where and when did it happen?

Mr. FORTUNE: It was really huge. It was publicized at home because they just arrived in Dogwood and they got attacked. And the (unintelligible) were killed and obviously, that just added to sort of people just (unintelligible) about things.

But in a way, we don't see it they are those characters. And - but they are and it is based on that incident and it became almost - during that, it has supposed that I was always acting for against having that as the climatic moment in the play. But in a way, it was inevitable that that was going to be the climatic moment of the play.

So we add that. That was how that came about. But again, it was one of those things - that it was well publicized enough and it was enough information about it, even that you could actually watch the bombing on the net, you know, have been blew up by the jihadists on, like, YouTube.

LYDEN: It's done in a way that is just haunting and the men spell out codes that left the other men know who's been killed and who's wounded.

(Soundbite of play, "Black Watch")

Mr. FORTUNE: Every soldier…

Mr. BURKE: We had (unintelligible)…

Mr. FORTUNE: …a one of any - whether he is a - in the U.S. forces or is in teh British forces, or a Black Watch, a member of the Black Watch, a former, they have nothing but praise for it when they can speak. Yeah, they do need a bit, a little bit of decompression afterwards.

Mr. BURKE: They do.

Mr. FORTUNE: Because it's almost much like they feel like a bat only they think that was me. That was me standing there. I was doing that at that time. And then lots of them - I knew a lot of them. (Unintelligible) it's all based on them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FORTUNE: They used it to get ghettos(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURKE: (Unintelligible) watch(ph) the word (unintelligible).

LYDEN: Well.

(Soundbite of play, "Black Watch")

LYDEN: Actor Jack Fortune and playwright Gregory Burke of the National Theatre of Scotland. Their production, "Black Watch," is at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn until November 11th. But all the performances are currently sold out. However, it's expected to return to America next spring.

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