BLACK WATCH by Gregory Burke, directed by John Tiffany (National Theatre of Scotland). At Varsity Arena (275 Bloor West). To June 15. $46. 416-872-1111. Rating: NNNN
We all know that war is hell, but you'll rarely see that truism given a more human face -- or turned into a more exciting piece of theatre -- than in the National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch.
Based on interviews with soldiers who fought with the Scottish regiment in Iraq, playwright Gregory Burke's fine text-and-movement show will make you laugh, move you and at points blast you out of your seat.
Its central figure is Cammy (Paul Rattray), who tells us about his wanting to be a soldier and the stereotypes he doesn't match given that desire. He and his mates in a Scottish pub are interviewed by a writer (Michael Nardone) who wants to know what it was like over there. Burke uses the interview device to unveil layers in these dedicated enlisted men and a few of their officers; they're people who learn to live and try to survive in a wartime atmosphere where the temperatures reach 120 degrees and levels of anger, boredom and frustration go much higher.
Among the eight hundred members of the Black Watch, they've been called in to replace 4,000 American marines who's not been able to break the enemy down. As if. The newbies all expect to be home by Christmas, an idea laughed at by their more experienced comrades.
We get to know each of the men and their quirks, as well as their tough sergeant (Nardone again, in a totally different role from from the shy writer, who's always sent up by the soldiers) and an officer (Jack Fortune) who reveals in a series of letters home that the military minds and politicians pulling the strings aren't always concerned for the fighting men.
The near-two-hour show never lets up its energy under director John Tiffany, and while plenty of testosterone ís on display, there's some impressive balletic work too, all done with, um, military precision.
The only problem is aural. The men's accents are thick, the miking at opening was hit and miss and the venue (Varsity Arena) gives an echo to much of what's said. I'm sorry to have missed chunks of the 300-year history of the Black Watch, during which Cammy is costumed in various period uniforms by the others; likened to a golden thread that links one generation of soldier to another, that history is one of the production's dramatic highlights.
But even if not all the words are clear, the emotions always are. Black Watch is world-class theatre, filled with muscular performances and human foibles. It's worthy of the hype that's preceded it to Toronto.