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March 3, 2008 | by  | in Theatre |
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Blackwatch: Interview with Emun Elliot

If you don’t like the Scottish, go away you selective bastard.

The very same males who like wearing skirts with a pouch full of hair to highlight their bushes also like to fondle giant logs and throw them up and down mountains. They also really like their mos, especially the ginger ones. They have ancestors who painted their face blue and charged at the British with horses and more logs. They also really love to swear and if you mention something Irish they would hurt you, greatly.

They love their scraps and they love their highlands. But more significantly, they love their culture and nationalism. They are so fierce with it that Black Watch, which is on at the TSB Bank arena for the 08 Arts Festival, would make you rip your jeans off and steal your girl friend’s baggy skirt and start saying “ay.”

And man do they love to swear. Every second word is either the “C” word, sometimes the “S” word and if you’re really lucky you might get the “F” word. It all seems to be blended into the dictionary and no one really minds their overly excessive swearing. It almost seems polite.

Having said that, the Scottish are one of the greats to have a drink with. When I was interviewing Emun and the rest of the cast of Black watch, I was drowning in brew but wasn’t paying for it. Never once was I bored with the cast as anecdote after anecdote was thrown out and constantly left the man next to the speaker pissing himself. Hearty is the word I am after.

To be a bit formal, Black Watch is about the Scottish battalion in Iraq. Based around a documentary question and answer format, the experiences of the soldiers are shown and dramatised. The rest you should be able to guess – if not, I am surprised you can even read.

I grew interested in the actors’ method acting and asked Emun what did they do to prepare themselves for their soldiering roles. “We had an old Drill Sergeant come in to prepare us. He was an old guy so us boys thought we were in for a laugh.” There was a pause. “Hell we were drilled hard and the fright of our lives.” Basically, they got as hardcore as you could get without being enlisted.

It shows too, in the play: they sprint all over the place while body-throwing one-another with full gear on. The marching too is also intensively impressive as everything is conjoined by the discipline rhythm of what you would only see in the actual army.

Emun also explained that “Black Watch is much like a clan. A war clan. If you pay attention to the names of each character, they each are the names of the old Scottish clans.

“With this war, the soldiers aren’t fighting for their government. They are fighting for their friends, from where they are from. Wars these days are very different to those in the past due to the reasons of why we fight. It very much is a tribal thing.”

“So how did this play start?”

“Well, somewhere in 2006, it began with a couple actors, a director and a few more theatre designers sitting in a room with plans of creating something. Black Watch is a devised piece of many artists. So you know it’s quite a while.”

“Any changes to what is already a well known piece of Scottish theatre?”

“Something’s have changed, few minor things. Some actors had to leave due to their families and so on. With the new actors they each brought a different something to the play. Essentially we had to keep the play the same, or it would have been like Jay Z trying to sing a Beatles song.”

When it first premiered in 2006 at the festival of Edinburgh, everyone in Scotland loved it. It was deeply rich with Scottish Nationalism, intensely deep with Scottish Romanticism and gave their most famous regiment even more colour.

And so it should, I’d had enough of Americans crying about deaths in a war when they bomb the living crap out of cities and send them grunts in to clear what is essentially a graveyard. About time someone else had a go at it.

The travel schedule that Black Watch faces is simply astonishing. It puts our Vic OE to shame. After they are done with Wellington, they are heading back to Edinburgh for another season, then to the States, Canada, then to London. That isn’t the end though, more places want them to perform but the manager is having trouble due to the choice.

For those who are still in love with explosions and warfare, the experience of what Black Watch offers gets you as close as you can, before you actually get burnt or die. “We have had a lot of war veterans come to watch this play and coming forward after the show telling us they it takes them right back cause its so accurate.”

Now the fights: “There are deliberate moments of chaos and it can be quite hellish. If you try and act out a regiment attacking an Iraqi base, it can seem like that on the News. We had to make it theatrical. It is both choreographed and deliberately chaotic.” In other words, everything that happens is right in front of you, no cinema tricks. It’s all in your face, which is the magic of theatre.

So, strobe lighting, stupidly loud explosions, hand-to-hand combat and a bucket load of Scottish blokes. Some would say it’s Christmas.

Because the Iraq war was deemed another Vietnam, it wouldn’t take long before someone got his or her hands dirty with literature condemning this war. But this one is slightly different. Imagine Black Hawk Down with Scottish mannerisms, Scottish nationalism and a lot of swearing. And take out “Hawk Down” and replace it with “watch.”

If war doesn’t tickle your fancy and you plan to watch this play, God really does like creating idiots. The play basically revolves around a journalist asking members of the Blackwatch Battalion in a pub what it was like in the Iraq War. So for plot, it’s a bit stiff as really there isn’t much imagination. But what this Q&A format does for the pace is give it a deliberate sense of balance; from the deafening chaos of war to the staleness of a pub.

When it comes to the question of theatre teaching the public, I really don’t know what this play is doing. Maybe it’s because the documentary style just doesn’t quite survive the transition to a dramatised theatre. It feels like having your head being smashed against the pool table while trying to think of the reason why. The play makes you ask why soldiers do what they do, but I am troubled to find the answers.

I loved the acting. There is something about a Scottish accent that is just so bloody loveable…the nameless officer, of whom Jack Fortune played to brilliantly stereotypically; the Sergeant, strongly played by Michael Nardone; and Franz, vulgarly played by Emun Elliot…they are all just plain brilliant. All the roles are played stereotypically but it makes the play flow so well.

Should you purchase a ticket, you might notice in small print a little health warning. It mentions explosions and strobe lighting. If that doesn’t reawaken the inner child in you, go away. The sound designers and lighting designers are nothing short of superb as they assault your senses with no mercy. An old war veteran who sat next to me was seeking cover when the mortar strikes ripped up my ears. The machine gun timed with strobe lighting is enough to make dogs explode and the songs are just oozing with so much Scottish culture that I felt called upon to wear a kilt and going highland dancing.

There are moments in this play that make me absolutely fall in love with the Scottish. Other than absolute neck hair standing awesomeness, what can you create with a group of soldiers and bagpipes? Can you go wrong with a Scotsman swearing so much that a mother would deafen her son before Franz says another “C” word?

This play feels a bit like those American War Films. It is awesome to watch it as it just assaults your senses, but they could never sort out their storyline. Having said this, I loved the play because it was just so damn fun. If war, ringing eardrums and swearing Scotsman sounds like a good night for you, Black Watch is on till the 9th of March.

Writer Gregory Burke
Director John Tiffany
TSB Bank Arena,
Queens Wharf, Wellington
Until 9 Mar 2008

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