Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Black Watch, Barbican

Just for old times' sake, like...

let's talk about a play.

Black Watch, eh?

This was jolly good, wasn't it? Black Watch is the story of a group of Scottish soldiers serving in the Black Watch regiment in Iraq, recounting their time Iraq, encountering a playwright who wants to make a play out of their time in Iraq. It's told through song and movement, as well as dialogue. That's it. Simple.

A few thoughts that seem worth thinking:

Dramaturgically, this is in no way a well made play - many of its devices are almost clunkingly obvious, but that doesn't stop it being very fucking good. We set too much store by subtlety, mistaking it for profundity or complexity. There is a passage in which one of the soldiers recounts the history of the regiment as he's dressed in the various uniforms of its history. It is straightforwardly didactic - but that doesn't make it any the less dramatic - it simply transfers the site of the drama from individual personal conflict to the movement of a group through history and the relationship of an individual now with that history. (It's predecessor here is Peter Brook's US, in which the history of the nation of Vietnam was dramatised through the body of two performers). Didacticism has a bad press, perhaps in part, becuase too few artists have very much worth telling. Gregory Burke has plenty to tell us here, as do the soldiers who have served out there. In a sense, storytelling is the most didactic of forms.

So, this simple, clear, often direct approach should not be confused with a lack of sophistication, nor should it be any impediment to considering Black Watch (or any other theatre that employs it) as anything other than fully theatre, fully art. There's too much about the show to exhaustively list its qualities or fully analyse every element, but an aside might let us into its world a little: while this is clearly not where its value lies, it points towards both the folly and the value of criticism. The former is that as theatre approaches its most theatrical, its most artistic, it also approaches its most incomprehensible, its most unrepeatable. What hope for the critic in the face of beauty which renders you speechless, of horror which chokes the words with which you might respond even before they form in the brain?

This is not simply a case of being insufficiently articulate, though here we find much to be insufficiently articulate about. It is that the moment we aspire to record, to comment upon, to critique, defies description and re-presentation. It is, in essence, beyond even comprehension, since comprehension can only come after the experience, the moment, itself. The experience occurs outside of comprehension, is changed by our inevitable attempts to comprehend. It's too obvious to say that we can never fully comprehend, but perhaps when we think we understand even a little we are kidding ourselves, reducing action to signification as though drama can be read like a code.

There is a striking moment - the soldiers at the heart of the play, who we have already seen being variously boisterous, loud, crass, playful, scared, angry, recieve letters from their loved ones. One by one they read them, drop them, and, perhaps by way of reply, they perform a simple series of sign-language gestures, many of which, but not all, are obvious enough for us understand; we pick out that they are saying "I love you" and maybe a few other words and phrases. So here we have gesture as purely codified language, and yet gesture is never simply purely codified language, any more than saying a word is simply conveying the meaning of that word. The effect is hypnotic, beautiful, but above all, it speaks of a world beyond the play, beyond here and now - a whole world of desire and ache. It demands a response, but like all truly electric moments of theatre, the only response we can muster is silence.

So we rely on more inadequate words. Many reviews have mentioned this moment. None of them have captured it. None can, of course. What do you do with it? Try to capture some of its poetry in your description? Describe, rather than the moment, your confused thoughts about why physical theatre is "mystifying" and "embarassing" and in so doing tell us nothing about the play and everything about yourself? Tell us you liked it?. Offer an interpretive gloss? - it is too easy to resort to cliche and say that here we are being shown the sensitive side of these hard men. Perhaps we should retreat to the banality of judgement and weigh out our praise; for the acting which is never less than supremely focussed, always absolutely and terrifyingly in the here and now; for the movement which combines a visceral masculine force with a delicate, vulnerable grace; for the choreography which wrenches time out of joint, drawing the whole of the meaning and more out of moments which could so easily pass in a flash of intensity; for the direction which never misses a trick nor a beat, which time and again jolts you out of complacency with a surge of violence, or discovers tenderness and humanity in the midst of horror; for the music, which seems to carry the weight of all history with it in the arrangements of traditional regimental songs punctuating and accentuating the action. And so on.

But even as we find ourselves at the moment of the inevitable failure of criticism, of response, perhaps its here we find its value. It's understandable to stand open mouthed (or perhaps to scream with rage or sigh with boredom) in the face of theatre. But it's not enough. It lets us no deeper into the moment, nor any deeper into ourselves. If we are to value something we should at least understand a little of what its value is.

We need to note that, yes the applause here is for the actors, the production and so on, but its also for the men they play who are, we now know, heros in the midst of folly. And that it is inadequate. Our response has to be inadequate. Because like all great art the question you leave with is "What do I do with that? What can I possibly do with that?" And like all good questions the answer is beyond your reach and somehow you know that if you could catch even a glimpse of it it would leave even more shattered than the show does. And life has to go on.

So life goes on, but you are a little different and the world is a little changed.