REVIEWSREVIEWS BYTheatre ReviewsTom Williams

Black Watch

By Gregory Burke

black watch chicago
Black Watch


Directed by John Tiffany

Produced by the National Theatre of  Scotland

and Chicago Shakespeare Theater

At the Broadway Armory, Chicago

Slurred heavy Scottish brogues diminish our understanding of the dialogue.

It is fitting that a story of a military unit – the Scottish Black Watch infantry of the British Army – be hosted before more than 600 souls at a former Army National Guard Armory in Rogers Park. Black Watch is an interesting blend of theatrical styles including songs, marches, personal interviews, stylistic combat and training movements with intense emotional outpouring that deeply tells the story of soldiers serving the British Army in Iraq.

black watch chicago

Playwright Gregory Burke and director John Tiffany interweave the past and the present that gives audiences a glimpse of the 300 year tradition of the Black Watch unit. We hear folks songs and bagpipes blasting out war anthems while we get to know the men of the Black Watch. We learn why they join the army, what it is to train with a unit of long standing tradition, and how they deal with fighting a modern war with unique rules that they were not prepared for.

black watch chicago

We experience what war in Iraq was like and how the men deal with the long periods of boredom, and how frustrated they get when they can’t always fight back with their illusive enemy.

black watch chicago

This 1 hour and 50 minute intermission-less drama moves swiftly (the cast runs full gallop throughout) and it contains thrilling as well as emotionally wrenching moments. As an Army National Guard veteran of the King Riots and the Democratic Convention of ’68, I have a small feel of what those guys felt – very small! I was never shot at nor had friends blown up by a suicide bomber but somehow the reenactment on stage moved me in my guy. I actually felt some of their pain.

black watch chicago

The show is a tad too long and the use of so much foul language (the F_word and the C_word in particular) – while accurate – diminished from the work as did the much too thick Scottish  brogues that – with their slurred and hurried speech patterns and Scottish idioms  – make much of the dialogue incomprehensible. Many audience members complained that since they could not understand what was being said – they need to use super titles like the Lyric Opera does! I must say that our trouble understanding the telling dialogue and personal comments drastically detracted the power and impact of the show.  On one level we ‘get’ what they were saying, but not all of their angst and pain was communicated.

black watch chicago

The thrilling movement highlighted by the bagpipe march that finds the troopers moving into and out of their formation was thrilling. The macho hand-to-hand combat training exercise and the reaction to the sound of mortar or artillery explosions vividly demonstrated the perils of war. The telling scenes where boredom prevails that finds the youngsters (and most were late teens to early 20’s) acting and talking about sex and more sex was right-on.  How each person calms their fears and deals with the death of a comrade is aptly shown.

The cast works hard and exemplifies real soldiers in look and movement.I was particularly impressed by Paul Higgins who played the Sergent and the playwright. The Black Watch offers a glimpse into what the Brits really think of the US Army. This is a show with much theatricality, loads of heart and stirring emotions – but – it is really a truthful look at what it is to be a soldier fighting a strange war. It is not an anti-war show nor does it glorify war – it is an honest rendering of war from the point of view of the foot soldiers assigned to fight it. Too bad those thick brogues hinder our understanding of the dialogue.


Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: March 30, 2011

For full show information, go to the Black Watch TheatreinChicago page.

At the Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL, call 3120595-5600,, tickets $38 – $45, Tuesdays thru Saturdays at 8 pm, Saturday & Sunday matinees at 3 pm, running time is 1 hour 50 minutes without intermission, through  April 10, 2011

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