Stranger Than Truth
In December 2004, Vicky Featherstone, newly appointed artistic director of the just-established National Theatre of Scotland, asked Scottish playwright Gregory Burke to monitor a move afoot in the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence to merge Scotland’s prestigious clan-based army regiment, Black Watch, with five other Scottish regiments to form the Royal Regiment of Scotland, despite Black Watch’s 300-year history of recruitment from three local districts. All this was happening as Black Watch was sent into Iraq on two tours of duty, the second to replace exhausted American platoons near Fallujah.
At first, Burke was stonewalled by the ministry, explains associate artistic director John Tiffany, who was at UCLA last week overseeing his production of Burke’s play, Black Watch, a hit at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival and presented in its U.S. premiere by the National Theatre of Scotland at UCLA Live through October 14.
In order to gather materials, the playwright tried phone calls and e-mails to the ministry. He got no reply; the soldiers were also reluctant to speak. “He was drawing a blank,” Tiffany says.
The NTS then tried a ruse, sending, in Tiffany’s words, a “beautiful female researcher,” to make an appointment with some soldiers. “The oldest trick in the world,” Tiffany says. But it worked. Six soldiers from the regiment were waiting for this beauty “when Burke showed up without her.” Still, the playwright is from Fife County, as were some of the soldiers, and they hit it off. Finally, stories from the regiment started rolling in.
In the months after this and other interviews took place, the company was rehearsing and building the play at the same time, and Tiffany admits to moments of panic when the event looked like it was shaping up into an unwieldy catastrophe. “That’s because we didn’t fully understand what we wanted, though we were clear what we didn’t want.”
They didn’t want a political thesis drama, the kind David Hare writes. “Every time we put politics in the mouths of the soldiers, the whole thing just sank,” Tiffany says. “That’s because soldiers are mostly not political; they’re just trying to do a very difficult job.”
They also didn’t want an anti-war lecture, even if the production was largely inspired by Joan Littlewood’s anti-WWI musical cabaret, Oh, What a Lovely War!
“We didn’t want to be there, patting ourselves on the back, saying, ‘See how right we are!’ to an audience that already knows that this war is a disaster,” Tiffany says.
Finally, they didn’t want to smear the soldiers — a measure of respect for which Tiffany says he’s been accused by the Scottish left of being in the pro-war camp. Among the added hardships for British soldiers is the antipathy toward them throughout Britain. This is one of the distinctions between the American and British experiences in Iraq. After the Vietnam War, U.S. veterans were spat on upon arriving home, an ugliness that has resulted in “Support our troops” being a contemporary mantra from both America’s pro- and anti-war movements. It’s as though, with bitter experience, we’ve become more sensitive to the nuances of pointless wars, at making distinctions between military policy and the soldiers ordered to enforce it.
Eventually in the creation of Black Watch,atruth emerged that forms its soul: the gnawing, mostly unspoken paradox of soldiers trying to remain professional with the realization that their government has hung them out to dry in a strategic debacle. This existential challenge is not articulated so much in the soldiers’ obscenity-bloated language, which is mostly the glue of camaraderie, but in behavior — in the matter-of-fact way the soldiers tend to the corpses of their friends, on the heels of an ambush and a roadside bomb. Their purpose derives not from serving queen and country, or even Scotland — hoaxes they scoff at. Rather, “We fight for our mates.” That’s all the meaning they have left, and it’s all they need. They joined the army because they wanted to scrap with somebody. They didn’t care whom. They didn’t care why. Nonetheless, despite the regiment’s nine casualties (a relative pittance compared to American military and Iraqi civilian losses), this war’s underlying pointlessness broke them.
Tiffany says that the first image he had for this production derived from the Edinburgh Military Tattoo — a military parade with kilts and bagpipes that he, an Englishman from Yorkshire, told the BBC he found “absurd.” By the time he got to Westwood, however, that characterization had evolved into “obscene — the celebration of a killing machine.”
That “celebration” now closes the play — a wordless, choreographed ritual of nine soldiers in army fatigues and the Black Watch’s red hackle feather in their caps, marching in split formations to live bagpipes and a pulsing snare-drum beat with dreamlike music that transforms the dance of death into fiercely kinetic, macabre spectacle. It’s a devastatingly emotional 21st-century answer to Joan Littlewood’s lament for World War I.
After a staged reading earlier this year at South Coast Repertory’s Pacific Playwrights Festival, Donald Margulies’ newest play, Shipwrecked! The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself) — An Entertainment opens this week for its world premiere at SCR. Margulies’ play, like Black Watch, is ultimately about gathering stories and using them to arrive at meaningful truth. Shipwrecked! concerns the turn-of-the-century controversy surrounding a Swiss storyteller who chronicled his three decades of travel adventures in a British periodical. He’s a bit like Burke’s playwright character, but rather than wrestling with the adventures of others, and trying to fathom a larger truth from them, Rougemont directs a spotlight on himself with a picaresque saga — told directly to the audience — of his own adventures and misadventures in Australia, which include being marooned on a Pacific island and marrying an Aborigine, riding on the backs of sea turtles and seeing “flying wombats.”
Gregory Itzin in the title role is among the show's three performers, and if he’s anything like he was in the earlier reading, you’ll be treated to the way he licks his teeth in childlike glee at the whimsy of Rougemont’s story, not to mention a spectacularly droll rendering of Margulies’ more sardonic lines. The other treat, which comes later in the play, is seeing the flickers of panic in his eyes when the Royal Geographical Society questions the veracity of Rougemont's now-published saga. Flying wombats? Honestly!
The storyteller is on trial, and this play is his appeal to be believed, and to be loved. He is an advocate for the power of imagination over the facts. This sounds delightful on the face of it, but we’ve learned the kinds of trouble that ignoring the facts can get us into. In the play, the empiricists from the Royal Geographical Society are short-tempered brutes on the attack, which goads us emotionally to stand behind the embattled dreamer.
Margulies was in town briefly last week to oversee final technical issues before rushing back to New Haven to teach a playwriting class at Yale. I asked him if his charmless treatment of the Royal Geographical Society undermines their legitimate concerns that making stuff up is not always the road to larger truths. After all, “imagination” is the first cousin of a lie, which gets us no closer to truth than fixed intel. Not a problem, he replied as we sat at a table in the rehearsal hall, surrounded by a mountain of props.
“During the reading, I saw the audience completely seduced — there were grown men wiping away tears at a reference to the death of Rougemont’s pet dog — and the dog doesn’t even appear on the stage. If they’re experiencing a fiction that deeply .?.?. that doesn’t mean they’re not understanding the arguments of his opponents.”
And, of course, it is Rougemont’s story, “as told by himself.” Why would he give credit to his detractors? Nobody else does.
Black Watch is being performed at UCLA, Freud Playhouse, through October 14. (310) 825-2101 or www.uclalive.org. For a review, see New Theater Reviews.
Shipwrecked! The Adventures of Louis Rougemont (As Told By Himself) — An Entertainment is being performed at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, through October 14. (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org.