The Echoes of War

Posted on January 20th, 2011 by

Stepping into the performance space, the audience’s senses are assaulted. Bagpipe music screams through the sound system and computer-programmed lights swoop through the air as if trying to find an audience member in a game show. The air is foggy, and a kind of stadium has been created by dividing the seats into two sets of bleacher-like sections facing each other across the stage floor. The feeling of a black box space is complete—until, across the stage, through the fog, the real seats of the theatre become visible in the distance and it is apparent that the audience has been seated on the stage proper. The ceiling soars above us, technical equipment huddles in the barely-visible corners. We are in a space that has been thoroughly transformed; a space to which an audience is not normally privy. This momentary glimpse into a life we do not know subtly sets the stage for the masterpiece that is Black Watch.

After traveling on an unfamiliar underground line to an unfamiliar part of London, we entered the massive space of the Barbican, the largest multi-arts venue in Europe. We were prepared to watch a performance that promised to be intriguing and current. We were not prepared, however, for either the phenomenal honesty or the onslaught of sound and light that the show supplied. A cross-section of Scottish military life in and after combat in the Iraq War, the Black Watch centered on a group of soldiers being interviewed about their experience, and oscillated between moments in a pub at home and a base in Iraq. The production took advantage of both advanced technology and raw, gritty, human emotion, engaging the audience in a visceral experience largely with the sheer volume of the sound effects. Percussive, explosive sounds echoed through the space as we heard machine guns unload, planes fly by, and mortars drop too close for comfort. Just as there was no attempt made to cover the guts of the theatre in which we were sitting, no attempt was made to prettify the brutality of military life. Still, the play was never judgmental or preachy; rather, it was performed with an effortlessness that allowed the audience to absorb the casualties of war at our own pace, instead of feeling forced.

Because the seats were divided in two sections opposite each other, each audience member had the opportunity to watch other viewers just as easily as he or she could watch the play itself. Beyond the straightforward experience as a “public” viewing a play (meaning in this context a group that witnesses a performance, intentionally or not), we were inescapably also a public observing the subconscious human performance of the other half’s pre-show reactions; we were their public, and just as fundamentally, they were ours. Throughout the show, we watched them watch exactly what we watched, and the model of others’ reactions from 100 feet away affirmed our emotional investment. During the final battle scene, silent sobs visible in the other half of the audience reassured us that our own emotional responses were not out of place. The foundation of opposition created by the facing audiences amplified the tension that saturates the script and the production.

Black Watch dropped us into a world totally separate from our own and left us there to struggle long after the lights had come up. Its violence was matched by its heartbreak, and the overall effect left us stunned, deafened, and clawing for more.

 

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