Sunday, December 7, 2008

Enough about perfume, let's talk about war

Make-believe war, anyway. Black Watch was our main reason for going to New York City over Thanksgiving, and I’ve been mulling over what I want to say about it ever since we got back. The play has been the subject of tremendous buzz since it opened in Scotland last year, but if you haven’t heard about it, here’s a blurb, lifted from the play’s page at the National Theatre of Scotland website:

“Hurtling from a pool room in Fife to an armoured wagon in Iraq, Black Watch is based on interviews conducted by Gregory Burke with former soldiers who served in Iraq.

Viewed through the eyes of those on the ground, Black Watch reveals what it means to be part of the legendary Scottish regiment, what it means to be part of the war on terror and what it means to make the journey home again.”

Promo-speak notwithstanding, that’s a pretty good description. The action alternates between conversations with the vets in the pool hall, and their memories of action in Iraq. There’s a writer character in the Fife scenes (played by Michael Nardone—more about him later), and very brief turns by politicians and journalists, but otherwise the play focuses entirely on the Black Watch soldiers.

I have certain doubts about the play, but I have to admit that it’s probably the best piece of theater I’ve ever seen. It’s a very physical play—lots of wrestling, jumping, dancing, etc.—and the actors and audience were just inches away from each other. You could see the sweat and spit fly. I was reminded of being at the ballet, sitting close enough to hear the skitter and tap of the toe shoes; in this case, it was the stomp of combat boots.

The intimate staging is combined, in the Iraq scenes, with jarring light effects and very loud noises. After the first blast you start to steel yourself for the ones that follow—which, of course, is the point. The idea is to re-create the experience of being in a war zone. The effect requires perfect timing between the action onstage and off, which is what we got at our performance. It was very intense.

The power of the play relies to a great extent on the chemistry between the cast members, and they all did a great job of portraying the love/hate relationship soldiers have with each other. The close proximity to the audience magnifies clumsy or false moments, and there were very few.

That up-close-and-personal staging has another consequence that I’m not sure the play’s creators intended: If you admire male flesh, this play is incredibly sexy. Watching all that muscle hurtle by for two hours inevitably leads to thoughts of touching it. All the guys are attractive, but Michael Nardone, who plays dual roles as the writer in Fife and the squad’s sergeant in Iraq, had my full attention. He’s a fine actor, he’s handsome, and he’s even age-appropriate for me, more or less. Who could resist that, even in the midst of mock war? Of course, I’d spent most of the day huffing perfume, and I was sitting in the theater cradling a few hundred dollars worth of juice between my knees, so I was pretty well primed for sensual thoughts; but still, I can’t believe I’m the only person who was distracted by flashes of lust.

Black Watch’s vague similarity to a Chippendales performance, however, is not the source of my doubts about it—or maybe I should say, my doubts about the praise that has been universally heaped on it. (Ben Brantley's review in the New York Times is typical.) It’s a great couple of hours in the theater, sure, but that’s just the trouble. This is a play about the lure of war for young men; it’s about our mythology of war, and how human beings are shattered—physically and emotionally—when the myth meets brutal reality. Should people really like it quite so much?

An honest, fully realized drama about our war culture would to leave some portion of the audience angry or uncomfortable enough to hate it. It would hit a nerve, it would challenge all our sentimental attachment to tribal traditions, and remind us of our collective responsibility for their ugly consequences. Black Watch skirts the edge of doing that, but never quite plunges in.

I’m not saying I’d think more highly of Black Watch if it were more anti-war. Although it eschews any broad political statements, it basically is anti-war, which is why all the folks who hate the Iraq war are scrambling to get in and see it. The play’s politicians are craven liars, the Americans are bomb-crazy bullies, the journalists are dimwits regurgitating the drivel they’re fed and the soldiers are deeply traumatized--nothing for a good peacenik to argue with there. Looking around me at St. Ann’s Warehouse, I didn’t see one soul who looked like a McCain voter, and I suspect we all walked out of the theater feeling pretty smug about being on the “right” side about Bush's war. We felt sad, too, of course, in a pleasurable "isn’t-this-war-a-shame-thank-god-I’m-not-an-evil-neocon" sort of way. We believed exactly what we believed when we walked in, only more so. There was something almost comforting about the whole experience. I suppose I was hoping for a little more pain.

Battle of Anghiari, Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1505. Image from Web Gallery of Art.


Julie H. Rose said...

Excellent post, Maria!

I agree that a feeling more pain would have been appropriate.

As I happened to be thinking about a similar topic, I wound up writing a long, somewhat incoherent blog entry.

Mary said...

I've been wanting to see this for a while now. I think there is a touring company making the rounds (?). I'm glad it exceeded your expectations - and lust is definitely understandable in this case. :)

BitterGrace said...

Thanks, Julie. I am dashing out the door--I'm eager to read your post when I get back.

Mary, I'm pretty sure BW played somewhere in Virginia earlier this year. Definitely don't miss it if it comes your way.

Anonymous said...

After watching a particularly beautiful Union line torn apart by Confederate cannon fire, Robert E. Lee supposedly said, "It is well that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it." And that seems to be part of what you're saying about Black Watch: despite war's horror, it is an exciting and even sexy thing. Maybe that's why we keep having them. If that's what BW intends to convey, then it is much more than an anti-war play, and probably a very good one. Great review, BG; I'd like to see it too.

BitterGrace said...

I'd be interested to hear your take on it, Bozo. It does definitely convey something of the sexiness of war--or at least of soldiering. It's refusal to really condemn that allure is something I keep chewing on.

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