'Black Watch' Play Depicts Scottish Soldiers in Iraq Scots have long formed a disproportionate percentage of the British military. Now a play is depicting the soldiers' recent work in Iraq, where the famed Black Watch regiment has been deployed for three years. Black Watch, based on interviews with returning soldiers, suggests a crisis in the British military.
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'Black Watch' Play Depicts Scottish Soldiers in Iraq

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'Black Watch' Play Depicts Scottish Soldiers in Iraq

'Black Watch' Play Depicts Scottish Soldiers in Iraq

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Over the years the Edinburgh Festival has presented its share of hard-hitting drama, and this year's must-see play is Black Watch performed by the National Theatre of Scotland. It's about the 300-year-old Scottish army regiment of that name, which has been stationed in Iraq for the last three years. The play is a scathing indictment of Britain's involvement in Iraq and it is also a sensitive examination of Scottish identity.

NPR's Rob Gifford went to see Black Watch and he has this report.

ROB GIFFORD reporting:

Every so often a play or a movie or a book captures the mood of a nation. And the Black Watch by writer Gregory Burke is a strong candidate this year in Scotland. It is a very Scottish play, but one with a broader resonance for Britain and the United States.

(Soundbite of Black Watch)

Unidentified Man #1: Ho, ho, welcome to Camp Dogwood, boys.

Unidentified Man #2: It's the birthplace of civilization.

(Soundbite of explosion)

GIFFORD: The play takes place partly at Camp Dogwood in Iraq and partly at a bar in Scotland where a squad of young Black Watch soldiers signed up for life in the army. The play is raw and aggressive, characterized by the strong accents, stronger language and gallows humor of the young Scottish soldiers, and charting their gradual disillusionment with the war.

(Soundbite of Black Watch)

Unidentified Man #3: Well, you're not doing the job you're trained for. It's not like they're a massive threat to you or your country. You're not even defending your country. We're invading their country.

GIFFORD: In researching the play, author Gregory Burke and director John Tiffany spoke to almost 50 Black Watch veterans of the Iraq War. Tiffany says they all said the same thing about coming home.

Mr. JOHN TIFFANY (Director, Black Watch): They come back and they lose friends, they nearly die themselves. People are embarrassed of them. And what for was the question that kept coming up. A lot of times during the making of Black Watch, we kept saying this is Scotland's Vietnam play. Absolutely, in terms of the damage that's been caused to the soldiers, but also between military and public life. The tensions there as well. It absolutely does feel like Scotland's Vietnam.

GIFFORD: John Tiffany says the play also makes an important point about the British military. The identity of the Black Watch is deeply rooted in a very small area of Scotland, in Fife and around the city of Dundee. Earlier this year, six Scottish regiments, including the Black Watch, were amalgamated into one - the Royal Regiment of Scotland. The British government says it was for economic reasons.

Critics say it's because the army can't find enough recruits because of the Iraq War. John Tiffany fears the move will dilute the very tribal identity of the regiment and make recruitment even harder.

Mr. TIFFANY: I've heard a lot of American Marines talking about fighting for their country, whereas you don't hear that at all within the Black Watch. They fight for their regiment, they fight for their village, they fight for their pals. They don't even fight for Scotland, never name Britain as a whole, and I found that extraordinary.

So what happens then when you amalgamate all the regiments so that no longer are you joining up for the Black Watch, you're joining up for the super Scottish regiment. So suddenly that tribal link starts to be decimated.

(Soundbite of Black Watch)

Unidentified Men: (Singing) I (unintelligible) over the mountains and over the (unintelligible). Through Gibraltar, to France and to Spain. We are (unintelligible) a kilt up in your knee. (Unintelligible) my boney laddie.

Unidentified Man #1: I thought it was going to be exciting.

Unidentified Man #2: And it was before it started.

Unidentified Man #1: I thought it was going to teach me something about the meaning of life.

Unidentified Man #3: But he was too busy shooting folk.

Unidentified Man #4: And what did it teach you?

Unidentified Man #2: I didn't want to be in the army anymore.

Unidentified Man #3: Me neither.

Unidentified Man #5: None of us.

(Soundbite of explosion)

GIFFORD: The play ends with the deaths of three of the Black Watch squad in a suicide bomb in Iraq. A screen suddenly drops to reveal the three actors in bloodied clothing floating in death towards the ground. Members of the audience, like Jim Andrew and Allison Coats(ph), emerge shell-shocked from the auditorium.

Mr. JIM ANDREW (Audience Member): It should be required viewing for the British government, for the House of Commons and for the whole of the American government.

Ms. ALLISON COATS (Audience Member): These young men, they're like every young man you see in every town center. You know, they had a language that they said what we all wanted to say. I thought it was magnificent.

GIFFORD: Black Watch has just finished its run at Edinburgh. The National Theatre of Scotland has already had offers to perform it in Canada and Australia.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Edinburgh.

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