Staging a war

Franchesca Hashemi

Sitting quietly at a table with his on screen Sergeant, Adam McNamara turns to face me. Our online personalities are acquainted but to affirm a real-life connection, he brings forward a palm. I look, then accept. His colleague, fellow actor Robert Jack, slips quietly out the makeshift dressing room leaving an empty chair behind. Tentatively I make a dash for it.
“May I?” I ask pointing in its direction. “Aye!” replies a soft Dundodian whirr. Then DIIIIING – an interjection from Twitter.
“Sorry!” he cries placing a large hand on the iPhone and sliding it out of sight. Grins are exchanged and chairs brought forward in an attempt to hear one another speak. Although the SECC’s atmosphere is relaxed, many young men mill about which avert our attention. Some fire orange machine guns while others leap around playfully. The guys are actors and they are waiting to be called for their next performance. They are the cast of Black Watch.

In the midst of its fourth global tour, this National Theatre of Scotland production Black consistently receives sold-out audiences no matter where in the world it performs. Adam, who has been featured in productions since 2010, reminisces over his affair with the show.
“When I saw Black Watch for the first time what I took away from it was hearing my accent on stage. It was a profound thing for me.”
Adam is referring to the Scottish lingo which is dominant throughout. Based on real-life interviews with Black Watch soldiers, Gregory Burke’s award-winning script bears an outstanding sense of surrealism. Although it is centred around Iraq, the characters are still young men. They’re from Fife, they’re with their pals and they like to have a good time. They just happen to be fighting a war.

Continuing in a slightly softer accent than his character Rossco’s, Adam describes his solider as ‘the one who is laid back about the whole thing’. Viewed as the level-headed one out the bunch, Rossco has ‘more service’ than his peers. This creates a sense of balance throughout the group and one of many elements which allow it to work so well.
At the other end of the spectrum there’s Stewarty, a younger solider who is on his second tour of Iraq. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and should not be there – however the army turns a blind eye. The contrast in these characters shows a wide variety of personalities on stage. There is a group of young men each with a different story which compliments each other’s beautifully. It echoes an unintentional effort by the Black Watch creative team when they audition new actors for each tour. Just like real life recruits new soldiers for the next war.

“He’s ok with what he’s doing,” explains Adam. “The only reason he leaves the army is because of the politics, he doesn’t want to be changed by it.” The coolness in his voice shows tiny glimmers of Rossco coming through. When you are involved with a certain personality on such an intense level, it must be easy to feel empathetic towards them.

Sitting with Adam highlights the difference between what an actor and audience member takes from the show.  A live performance, especially coupled with song and movement, has great effect simply because the viewer feels part of it. They are experiencing it from the moment of creation. Continuing in his delicate manner Adam talks of an audience’s vibes which affect the night’s performance:
“Every audience is a different beast so we feed off that.” No truer word said when you think of its context in foreign countries. The dialogue in Black Watch is young and Scottish therefore profanity is high. Classic Scotch words are sometimes adapted to suit the viewer however Adam is reassuring that impact is never lost.

“There are certain types of the female anatomy that we refer to in the play but in America for example, we name it after a small kitten.” Adam smiles shyly and catching his drift, I nod in acknowledgement. Other phrases which may be confusing to the overseas viewer are the typical slurs of ‘ey’ and ‘ken’. “We’ll use the word Ken but not as much, until we feel the audience going along with it” – adding crucial elements of authenticity. Not once in its two hours are you aware you are watching actors.

Adam giggles shyly, an endearing sign of embarrassment between him and the show. Our conversation eventually turns to how an actor deals with coming down after a high energy performance. This is an exceptional piece of physical theatre which, extraordinarily, uses song and movement to encapsulate the rawest aspects of warfare. Like the suicide bomb which kills three of Rossco’s comrades. The actors are hung from metal cords which release them slowly from the roof. They fall gracefully as blood stains their face and the rest of the soldiers look on. It is a compelling reenactment of what many young men have endured. It reduces audience members to tears and is a reason for the non-actor to question the ‘high’.

“In the last scene you get to burn a lot of the tension off with the marching. But as soon as you get your costume off and have a shower, it’s back to normal life.”
The scene which Adam talks of sees the soldiers reunited, moving in cohesion and working as a unit. Perhaps not a poetically just ending but a fitting one all the same. When the Black Watch creative team set about this seemingly impossible mission, they would never of imagined how their story, the soldiers’ story, would impact on its audience throughout the world. How do you convey a solider’s view of Iraq? How do you let politics sit back and allow vulnerability to take its overdue toll? Turns out, it was rather simple in the end. From actor to journalist and solider to playwright – all the portrayals are a blast of fresh air.

Finally the public have a sense of what war fighting is really like. Even the production’s opening line makes us pause and reflect: “See, I think people’s minds are usually made up about you if you were in the army.” Director John Tiffany has not only challenged this statement, but the views of society. Something we expected from politicians and reporters, not ten guys from Fife.


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