Monday, May 9, 2011

Black Watch tour

I'm not a fan of war drama at all, but I decided to see Black Watch anyway because I was desperately curious about the movement, created by the choreographer of American Idiot and Peter and the Starcatcher. It helped that the rave reviews specifically praised that choreography. And, ok, I figured if nothing else I'd enjoy listening to a company of cute young Scottish men talk for a couple hours.

So I was unprepared when Black Watch (about the regiment's involvement in the recent Iraq war) knocked the wind out of me. I am completely in love with this National Theatre of Scotland play-with-music. Written by Gregory Burke and directed by John Tiffany, with movement/choreography by Steven Hoggett and music by Davey Anderson, the piece is honest, beautiful, and not even a little bit overwrought.

The play surprised me so many times during its two hours, and it's a bit difficult to categorize. It's somehow grittily realistic one moment and gorgeously impressionistic the next without falling apart stylistically. That may arise from being wonderfully infused with sound and movement throughout instead of having separate speaking and singing-and-dancing scenes. There's movement ranging from background characters in subtle tableau during talk-heavy scenes to coordinated group movement that might as well be called dancing. The same with sound: a few delicate piano notes repeating softly in the background or static from the TVs, percussive marching, beautiful full-out singing of folk tunes and, of course, bagpipes. But it's still not a musical.

The movement and music are at once arresting but not flashy, and always in service of the story. Each artistic component (dialogue, set, props, movement, music, video, wire work) is used in unexpected ways to take on burdens that traditional use of a more expected element couldn't adequately carry. A pool table is ripped open from within to reveal soldiers hiding there, and the movement of their exit is fantastically precise (as with every bit of the show); later its emptied-out shell is used as troop transport. The silent mail call uses subtle, gorgeous hand motions for each man as he reads news from home. There's even a series of hilarious costume changes enacted on one character by his mates to show him in various period uniforms during a retelling of the history of the Watch.

Kudos to the fantastic cast, which is pulled in so many directions over the course of the show. The requirements for this piece go way beyond being a triple threat, and the baby-faced cast delivered, one and all. Brilliant, brilliant ensemble work (from the cast and from the creative team).

I came to the show mainly for Hoggett's choreography, and it more than delivered. As I mention in my review of American Idiot, I love how he takes real-life movement and stretches it until it becomes dance. I can count on one hand the shows that have threatened to make me cry, and this one certainly surprised me. The ending of Black Watch is the first in which it was the choreography that brought tears to my eyes.

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