War-torn Iraq is brought to the stage

Soldiers serving in Iraq live life on the edge - which is why playwright Gregory Burke was drawn to their testimony. The result, reports Sarah Jones, is explosive
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The Independent Culture

In the cavernous Glasgow rehearsal halls of Scottish Opera, Gregory Burke's new play Black Watch, about the legendary Scottish regiment's involvement in Iraq, is taking shape. Ten men are booting a football about, their voices echoing, while a few people idle behind trestle tables piled with papers. Is this an insight into the endless ennui of "our boys" in the Iraqi desert? No, just some idling actors. But there are parallels.

Expected to be a highlight of this year's Edinburgh Fringe, Burke's latest work, the fourth from the Scottish playwright who debuted on the 2001 Fringe with Gagarin Way - an award-winning tale of Fife computer factory workers who take radical socialism into their own hands, with shocking, violent results - follows a troop of 10 Black Watch soldiers "living in an armoured car in a space the size of a pool table" in one of the most dangerous zones in Iraq.

Gleaned from interviews with soldiers in Fife's pubs, Burke's impression of Iraq is "like Dunfermline on a Saturday night, but with air strikes." It's a joke one imagines would go down well in the armoured car. Humour, Burke says, is a strong defence mechanism on army duty, both to subvert the ever-present threat of being killed and the boredom between the action.

Modern warfare throws up bizarre juxtapositions, "with no newspapers or communications for weeks, and embedded journalists who aren't allowed to let on what they know". Burke tells me of soldiers leaping out to get a photo with an Iraqi woman just because she had "a large pot on her head". Of others rolling to avoid enemy fire, only to lie there in hysterics at the resemblance to kids' games. "Of course, you only take photos of the good bits," Burke says.

On stage, the "good bits" will be interspersed with political rhetoric. The result will, he hopes, "make the murkiness of the politics surrounding this war and our Army quite evident". Burke will also examine the psyche of what he sees as an endangered species - the regimental soldier.

But this is not just an agitprop piece about Iraq. "Enough people have commented on that. Even the Army thinks it's a disaster." Burke's real interest is the nature of the Black Watch regiment itself, traditionally recruited from Fife, Perthshire and Angus, whose history, he says, "reads like a history of Scotland since the Jacobite Rebellion in 1715". It's a history to which his own family have made a contribution, a fact which played on his mind in the writing.

"Everyone in Fife knows someone in the Black Watch," Burke says, adding: "I've never known anyone speak badly of the Army." This connection - Burke's grandfather, uncle and two of his mother's cousins were in the Black Watch - makes it surprising that the idea came not from him but from Vicky Featherstone, incoming director of the National Theatre of Scotland, who in 2004 asked Burke to "keep an eye on Iraq". The Black Watch had been deployed to the war-torn American sector, suffering five deaths in one month. Simultaneously, the Government said the regiment would be disbanded to create a Scottish "super-regiment" on its return.

"It was weird watching events unfolding, thinking that it could have been me," Burke says. Born in 1968 in Dunfermline, he spent his formative years on the British Navy base in Gibraltar during the Falklands War; his father was sent there from Rosyth. This rather "cushy" view of military life was "very seductive", Burke says. It inspired his second play, The Straits, which opened to restrained reviews in Edinburgh a year ago, again raising the issue that Burke doesn't do "angry" as much as "violent" young men.

For Burke, it's not necessarily a question of supporting the soldiers' actions in Iraq. He's scathing about the politics, and about a situation that "makes soldiers do things they would not normally do". He affectionately calls the Black Watch "the boys", but his detachment is not in question; he "lets the soldiers speak for themselves," good or bad.

But he recognises the sense of shared identity symbolised by the regimental Red Hackle (cap feather). "Everyone in the Black Watch came from the same area. It's why the regimental system has worked so well. You served with people you knew. If you're going to be a coward, it's not just in front of people who you'll never see again; it's people who'll tell your auntie what happened. There are guys in there who are serving alongside their fathers."

That identity is in danger of crumbling, Burke says - and with it the strength of the Army. "What was evident in researching this piece is that regiments are as much a working-class local institution as the pits or the shipyards. Maybe that's one reason why there was such an outpouring of anger when it was announced that the Scottish regiments were to be amalgamated. It was almost like you were closing the pit. The army recruits best, not from the big cities, but from these traditional settled white communities that perhaps don't best reflect our rosy multicultural ideal of Britain. It's uncomfortable, but if they lose contact with those communities, the Army would be on a shaky peg."

But Burke is wary of "being too sympathetic towards the soldiers. There's a danger that an audience will already think the war's a scandal, but I don't want them feeling, 'Oh those poor little soldiers that got exploited.' They're big boys, they can look after themselves - that's their attitude. Then again, if they're going to do something, they need to be clear about what they're doing."

Was Burke reluctant to make a political point? The answer is a conditional "no". "I'll be going to the pub with the boys afterwards, so if they want to batter me... But I think they'll enjoy it. I've just tried to write it as it was for them." If Iraq is indeed the Black Watch's final war, "it's a really rubbish one to end with".

He's aware of the danger of being pigeon-holed as the "guy who does the male Scottish swearing plays". His next play is "a comedy about relationships. Not me, you might think, but after The Straits and Black Watch, I want to get away from the Army for a while." He grins. "Before I end up doing Soldier Soldier."

Traverse 4: University of Edinburgh Drill Hall (0131-228 1404; www.edfringe.com), 1-27 August

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