Black Watch

TSB Arena, Queens Wharf, Wellington

22/02/2008 - 09/03/2008

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Production Details

Described as an "astonishing artistic whirlwind" (The Herald, UK), Black Watch took the 2006 Edinburgh Festival by storm, playing to sold-out crowds and garnering unanimous critical acclaim.  

Based on interviews with former soldiers who served in Iraq, this provoking theatrical production tells the story of Scotland’s legendary 300-year-old Black Watch regiment through the eyes of those on the ground in one of the bloodiest areas of Iraq.

Charging between a pool room in Fife and an armoured wagon in the heart of the battle zone, John Tiffany’s heart-stopping production reveals what it means to be part of the war on terror and what it means to make that journey home again.

Hailed by the press as a cultural landmark of the 21st century, Black Watch has won, among other awards, four Critics’ Awards for Theatre along with the South Bank Show Award for Theatre.

For this New Zealand season a specially built stage will transform the venue into an intimate performance space, transporting the audience from Scottish homeland to the intense heat of the Iraqi desert. This highly physical performance incorporates pipe music, traditional songs and tight action sequences punctuated by stunning visual imagery – an event not to be missed.


Macca David Colvin
Kenzie Paul James Corrigan 
Stewarty Ali Craig
Fraz Emun Elliot
Officer Jack Fortune
Granty Jonathan Holt
Writer / Sergeant Michael Nardone
Rossco Henry Pettigrew
Cammy Paul Rattray
Nabsy Nabil Stuart

Set design Laura Hopkins
Sound design Gareth Fry
Lighting design Colin Grenfell
Costume design and wardrobe supervisor Jessica Brettle
Video design Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer for Fifty Nine Productions Ltd   

1hr 50 mins, no interval

Loved it

Review by Lynn Freeman 06th Mar 2008

There’s always a danger when a show arrives from overseas hyped to the max, that won’t deliver. Black Watch, when you read the overseas reviews, is one of the shows of the moment.  It is based on the Scottish Regiment Black Watch, a potted history though mainly set in Iraq as ex-soldiers talk about their experiences there. 

But it’s less about Iraq than about the platoon mentality, as the soldiers here say they fight not for their government nor their country, but for their regiment. 

It’s strongest moments are the purely physical ones – the fighting scene which is reminiscent of the grace and power of Black Grace, the receipt of letters from home where the soldiers sign the works so movingly, and the final scene when – well of course I can’t tell you that. 

Others haven’t been as impressed with Black Watch as I am, some walk out perhaps because of the language which is extreme though in context. And I’m not saying it’s perfect (including problems with hearing the song lyrics). But I loved it


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A storm in the desert

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 25th Feb 2008

Docudramas can make for compelling and engaging theatre, none more so than the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch, currently playing at the International Festival of the Arts. 

Based on real interviews from members of the Black Watch – the world’s oldest and best known army regiment – who had return from a tour of duty in Iraq, it portrays their feelings, emotions, the psychology behind why young men join the army, as much as it does their experiences of fight in Iraq.

The play alternates between a pub where a researcher is interviewing the soldiers on their return from the war in Iraq and the actual area they were fighting in near Faluga in Northern Iraq.  In between we get scenes of the Commander writing home, a very informative and creatively put together history of the Black Watch and some well chorographed dance like fighting routines. 

The play takes no political stand nor pushes any ideas either for or against the war in Iraq but does pose a lot of questions about both war in general and this one in particular.  The over-riding theme that comes through is the soldiers ignorance of why they were fighting – they just wanted to be in the army for the camaraderie and the thrill of going to war, any war. 

What comes through very clearly is that the difference between Iraq and other wars is the presence of suicide bombers, the unseen enemy that you can’t shoot.  The effect of this is shown very graphically at the end and is a culmination of an incredibly well constructed, directed and put together production. 

One could be cynical about the themes, seen in countless movies over the years, but the style of presentation, the energy and athleticism of the ten actors and most importantly the honesty and humanity of their acting, which transcends the banal, makes Black Watch a vibrant and exhilarating, yet poignant and heartfelt, production. 

Overall, an excellent start to this year’s International Festival of the Arts.


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Ten ciphers in search of a theme

Review by John Smythe 24th Feb 2008

This play comes to the NZ International Arts Festival on a wave of Scottish nationalism, pride in the Black Watch Regiment (which was controversially absorbed into a new Royal Regiment of Scotland in March 2006, ending 266 years of distinction), political opposition to its involvement in the Iraq war, and pride in the way the Scottish National Theatre makes its plays.  

The context in which it premiered (in 2006) probably placed it beyond objective criticism, and given its subsequent success on a worldwide tour, I am very aware that I march out of step with widespread opinion. Also – it has to be said – the ‘sardine’ seating with ‘economy flight’ leg room at the poorly ventilated TSB Bank Arena is not conducive, on a hot night, to a positive disposition.  

Black Watch is about the experiences in Iraq of ten regiment members, now back in ‘civvy street’, some of whom were sought out in a Fife pool room by a writer wanting to interview them, which is exactly what playwright Gregory Burke did. Indeed, even though the play was already scheduled for the company’s forthcoming season, those interviews, plus some traditional Black Watch songs and a desire to perform a creative version of the Tattoo, were all they went into the rehearsal room with. "We were making it up as we went along," John Tiffany says in his Director’s Note.

I find it astounding that the Q & A interviews remain a key part of the text and a passive break on the action that gives Black Watch its reputation as vigorous physical theatre. Maybe the actors need to rest between the bouts of intensive action. Maybe the strategy is that the more you resort to telling, the better the showing sequences will work. But I find it unimaginative in the extreme, especially when those meandering scenes of ‘everyone gets a turn’ dialogue do little to distinguish one ex-soldier from another.

If Burke’s point is that joining the army clones individual young men into a mob of compulsively swearing, pussy-obsessed, fanny-fearing thick-heads, then it is made, over and over again, despite the claim narrator Macca (David Colvin) makes upfront: "I’m not a fuckin’ knuckle-dragger," adding, "Bullying is a fuckin’ job. It’s what you have an army for." But the point would be made better if we knew who they’d been beforehand, or how they were trying to ‘civilise’ themselves now.

My guess is the creative team became so focused on the physical and technological spectacle aspects that the fundamental dramatic value of character distinction and development, in a play where the actors sustain the soldier roles throughout, was forgotten. A fear of offending the interviewed soldiers (or getting beaten up by them in a dark alley?) may also have been a disincentive to giving them the full human dimensions fictionalised characters would almost certainly have had. Paradoxically, then, in the quest for authenticity, the decision not to fictionalise actually diminishes the ‘truth’ factor.

All this means the spectacular bits have less emotional impact than they could and should. The transition from the first pool room scene into the theatre of war is surprising and promising. The televised political debate is duly informative. The blinding flashes and loud explosions are … bright and loud …

Even an officer’s monologued email home to his "darling" fails to humanise him because it’s used as another expositional device, to the extent that I find myself questioning the credibility of his being allowed to communicate so much detail about positions and plans by any means at all, let alone the internet.

The nameless Officer (Jack Fortune) and Sergeant (Michael Nardone) are necessarily different, if stereotypical, in their behaviour. The interactions, between them and the solders, and between varying groups of soldiers, suffer from their being ciphers and often seem in need of editing, except that would have to be done to align with a core unifying theme, which is wilfully absent without leave.

The songs come out of left field but being ‘of the regiment’ they must be accepted as legit. It’s just that with an initial solo narrator device, superseded by the writer’s Q&A sessions then the odd soliloquy from other characters, it’s hard to find a consistent viewpoint or set of conventions that make a virtue of the emerging mishmash of presentation styles. Again, an overall purpose in telling these stories would help.

As a discrete piece of staging, however, the way the history of the Black Watch is dramatised – told by a Robert the Bruce broadsword-weilding Officer while a soldier is ingeniously dressed and redressed by the lads – is effective and memorable.

What seems initially to be a gratuitously pornographic image of a leg-splayed woman does turn out to be the set-up for a witty gag. Watching projected images of shock and awe is effective but, again, goes on long after the point is made. Likewise a stylised fight sequence outstays its welcome.

Using the pool table as the back of a truck, carrying five of the lads to check out the village where mortars have been coming from, works well. An unwelcome return to the pub and the writer’s claim to understand nearly makes him a casualty of a an emotionally damaged soldier (did we see the event that made him this way?). And the climactic pay-off is shattering, including of the eardrums.

The stylised ‘Tattoo’ finale, accompanied by solo bagpipes, seems jingoistic at first until bodies fall, recover, fall again … The abiding image is of order being invaded by chaos. As with much of the performance, the physical fitness of the cast can only be admired. But again, it goes on way past the point that its point has been made.

But maybe I was anxious by then that the 15-minute delay in starting might make us late for the late night show at the thankfully nearby Festival Club. And we weren’t the only ones.


Thomas LaHood March 3rd, 2008

Well... as far as 'European' standards go for starting shows on time you can definitely exclude Spain. They're likely to have punters showing up an hour late and festival organisers will hold up international performers in order to allow this. It's diabolical. But nobody (except the guesting artists themselves) seems to care.

bronwyn bent March 3rd, 2008

Having worked as a front of house manager both here and in London, I've spent any number of hours dealing with latecomers, so I do feel qualified to comment on this! Generally standard conditions of sale for a ticket state something along the lines of "we don't have to admit you if you're late, and we don't have to give your money back either." In reality, though, there are any number of really good reasons why people are late, and that's why we try to accommodate them as best we can. (although I do admit I was always less lenient on people who tried to drive into central London and then cried "We just couldn't find a park!") However, I am surprised at how lax a lot of venues are when it comes to letting in latecomers. I know that a lot of front of house staff in NZ are volunteers or on very minimum wage, so they possibly aren't trained as well to deal with much beyond the basics of getting people to their seat. Unfortunately it points to the fact that most venues, given tight budgets, tend to scrimp on things such as F.O.H staff, comfortable chairs etc. while possibly not understanding the impact this has on their audience - if you've had three groups of latecomers walk past you whilst perched in an uncomfortable seat and then had to queue too long to get a warm beer, you're unlikely to look favourably on the the whole experience - even if whatever you were seeing was great. The first theatre I worked had notoriously high standards of F.O.H service, and we often got comments such as "I don't mind what's on here, I just come because I know I'll have a good night and be looked after."

Mary Anne Bourke March 3rd, 2008

Wake up 'Zia' - 'nanas' are patrons who smile benignly (with you) as silhouettes of latecomers stumbling to their seats obscure their view of the performance. A hard line on this shoddy practice is to be applauded.

martyn roberts March 3rd, 2008

common practice in theatre overseas (namely Britain and Europe) is NO late comers. The deviation to this is that you wait til interval before being allowed to take your seat. We don't all operate in Zia time - the whatever, whenever who cares time.

John Smythe March 3rd, 2008

And who, or what, are you, Zia? In principle I think personal insults of real peaple should only be made by people using their own real names. Fair?

Zia Lopez March 3rd, 2008

Good incentive to give up theatre altogether and stick with the movies, rather. What a Nana you are, Paul.

theatretimmy March 3rd, 2008

I 100% agree Paul. There is a reason it says 7.30pm on posters, tickets and all information. All too often people turn up ten, fifteen up to forty five minutes late an expect to get in because they have paid. Tough! Would you be late for a plane flight and expect to get on? I don't think so! There is nothing worse when sitting in a performance and have alte people walk in front of you!

Paul McLaughlin March 3rd, 2008

The most common reason for shows going up late is because patrons are late. If theatregoers all got to the venues in time, we'd all be happy. Personally I'd prefer latecomers were not admitted and not refunded; it would much fairer on all and a good incentive to turn up in time.

Michael Wray March 3rd, 2008

"If only everyone could see past the petty issues such as late starts " During a festival, it is common to book multiple shows in an evening. A late start in one show can lead to missing another show completely. I'm more inclined to consider seats less important. Alan is right that Downstage (and Circa One) offer seats with comfort challenges. The more a ticket costs, the more important that can feel. Hence, what is acceptable for one venue might not be at another. I'm looking forward to seeing Black Watch this weekend after such a diversity of reaction in these comments.

T Green March 2nd, 2008

Good work Kate! What a shame to have to read such a negative review about a theatre phenomenon, unlike any that I have ever seen before. We should feel priveleged to have such a professional and talented company come to Wellington. If this is the amount of appreciation shown then such esteemed international acts will not bother to make the trip all the way out here in future. I, too, found myself very emotionally involved and connected with characters which I believed to be well-developed. The movement was superb, and though not usually a fan of the bagpipes, the timing was perfect, and they certainly bought a tear to my eye. Interesting to read the directors comment on the reception here in NZ, as on the night I attended the cast also received a well-deserved longlasting standing ovation and everyone I spoke to seemed very interested in the hardhitting political aspects of the play. All in all, this is a piece that challenged me and will keep me thinking and marvelling at the amazing use of set and sound design. Contrary to thsi reviewer, I found Blackwatch to exceed all expectations that its wonderful reviews could ever have created. If only everyone could see past the petty issues such as late starts and seats (which I certainly didnt have a problem with) and concentrate on the bigger picture. Coincidentally, as a visitor to the city for the arts festival I found not only the TSB Bank arena, but also the Opera House and St James Theatre to be superb venues and a real assett to the city!

John Smythe March 1st, 2008

What an extraordinarily conservative demand you make, Alan. The Hannah Playhouse, where Downstage resides, is designed to be flexible, following in the tradition it established in the Walkabout Café, then in the larger space next door and at the Star Boating Club. Circa also allows for flexibility. Do audiences really get upset when the configuration is different from a previous show? Most people I know are delighted! By the way, you say nothing about the St James and Opera House which have very long rows in their stalls broken by no aisles at all! In all cases evacuation is available to either side of where one is sitting. In emergencies more exits are available than are used on arrival. Relax. Enjoy.

Alan Mancot March 1st, 2008

Michael, I'm not suggesting that Downstage double its ticket prices - its shows aren't good enough for that. My comment re dangerous looking stairs was once the audience gets into the auditorium. Actually, this comment holds true at Circa too - I don't know how they get away with the width of the steps in the Circa 1 shows I have attended. To me, it looks like they are far too narrow for the number of people who will have to exit using them in an emergency. I think that Downstage should think more about its patrons' comfort and less about the imperative which demands that it regularly change its seating configuration, at great expense and to the confusion of its patrons and ushering staff (at least early in each season). Having 'temporary' seating all the time makes it feel so ad hoc.

Melody Nixon March 1st, 2008

I still personally haven't resolved the issue of whether or not this is a political piece (contrary to its claims), and whether something that sits on the fence politically can work; but Jack Fortune sheds a lot of light on what the intentions of the piece are: What he says about the New Zealand reception of 'Black Watch' is pretty telling... "MN: You talked about interesting cultural reactions when the play was touring in the States. How have you found it here in New Zealand? JF: Well I’ll be honest with you. People seem to be taking it as a piece of theatre, rather than as a piece of political theatre – it’s almost like the political side is taken for granted. You used the word ‘spectacle’ earlier. And it seems to me, that that is how it’s being taken. People don’t want to talk about the play particularly, for better or worse. What would be interesting would be if people wanted to talk about it because they actually disagreed with it. No one has come up and said “Listen, that’s just so wrong”. ... JF: I think a lot of it is about interpretation. John Tiffany was very keen not to put politics into the words of the soldiers.... And no one lives with their character, or lives with the tragedy, because… scene by scene the play doesn’t engage that profoundly with the subject. I don’t think it’s meant to. The guys out in Iraq, the guys in the pub scene, they don’t… deal with it, except right at the very end when there’s the scene with the writer, and they actually start talking a bit more about it. It’s almost about not dealing with the material, as that’s what soldiers do, they keep it in."

Dan Slevin March 1st, 2008

I'm with Kate I'm afraid. I spent the hour or so after Black Watch scrolling through my past theatre experiences trying to find something better and failing. And there was a story - maybe not a plot but there was definitely a story.

Michael Wray March 1st, 2008

Alan, are you suggesting that Downstage double its ticket prices to match those of Black Watch so it can resolve those comfort issues? Dangerous looking stairways? Whenever they look at me in a dangerous way, I get in the nice looking lift ;-)

Alan Mancot February 29th, 2008

I find it ironic that Tommy complained about the comfort. Wasn't he Chair of Downstage? Downstage must be one of the least comfortable auditoria in the known world - creaky temporary rostra, really uncomfortable seats, dangerous-looking stairways, up two flights of steep stairs with lips that your feet get caught under, noisy, hot...

Kate Blackhurst February 29th, 2008

Wow, I'm guessing the late start really annoyed you, otherwise I can't understand these criticisms. It's hardly the company's fault that the venue and seating is not up to scratch. This is one of the most moving and emotional pieces of theatre I have ever seen. The acting; staging; dancing/fighting; songs were all superb. The interviews in the pub with the lads were brilliant and realistic, and the final scene, far from going on way too long as you wrote, reduced me to tears. On the night that I attended, the cast received a standing ovation which was fully deserved. By the time I left the venue, I was shaking with emotion. Never have I ever been so affected by a theatrical performance. This is a clear Festival highlight.

Tommy Honey February 25th, 2008

Spot on John. I wondered if I was the only one who was disappointed with Blackwatch. I thought it was full of sound and fury and little else. The spectacle obscured the absence of story making for a disorganised show. I thought the movement interludes (including the final marching sequence) were trite and added nothing. In these set pieces, the actors had not the disicpline of soldiers, nor the fluidity of dancers. They were just actors moving badly. All hat and no cattle. The show I saw also started late, for no apparent reason (there were no latecomers to speak of) and it was hotter than Iraq. If I'm going to be uncomfortable in the theatre, it should be because the story challenges me, not the environment. Bagpipe theatre - who needs it?

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