Black Watch, Barbican, London

4.00

Gregory Burke's Black Watch took the 2006 Edinburgh Festival by storm. Presenting the Iraq war through the eyes of the eponymous Scottish regiment, this extraordinarily potent combination of docudrama and stylised physical theatre was performed in an old drill hall and offered itself as a pointed alternative to the city's annual military tattoo.

Now John Tiffany's compelling, brilliantly marshalled production marches in triumph into London. To retain the unofficial tattoo-like atmosphere, the main house has been reconfigured as a cavernous black hangar, framed by scaffolding towers, with the audience in steeply banked seating on either side of the action. The piece flits between a Fife pub, where a naive playwright figure nervously lobs questions at a group of mocking, mistrustful and sometimes menacing ex-squaddies, and the sweltering hell-hole of Iraq where the troops need all their gallows humour in the face of mortar attacks and suicide bombers.

The power of the play lies in the way it draws together elements rarely found in tandem. On the aesthetic level, it unites the gritty authenticity of verbatim drama and the poetic theatricality of a style of staging prepared to embrace emotionally expressive choreography, plangent military song, video projection, and subtext-revealing mime. On the moral plane, it conjoins dismay at this particular conflict with elegiac sorrow for a regiment betrayed simultaneously on two fronts.

In 2004, the Black Watch was sent to replace American troops in the "triangle of death" – a deployment seen as a cynical move in Republican presidential campaign – while at home it was announced that the regiment was to be amalgamated with five others.

The play understands and gives due weight to the seductive pull of tradition – totems such as the red hackle worn in the tam-o'-shanters of the Black Watch and the strong tug of the "Golden Thread" that binds families across the generations to this outfit. At the same time, it allows us to see soldiery as a working-class industry that happens to have survived longer than mining or shipbuilding but is just as likely to be left stranded by those in power.

The production has a stunningly vibrant immediacy. At the start, the squaddies are resurrected when a hand, followed by several bodies in combat fatigues, rips throught the red baize surface of a pool table that then becomes a cramped personnel carrier. The history of the regiment – from 1739 to the present – is drolly unfolded in a sort of sartorial revue in which the main character Cammy (excellent Paul Rattray) is manoeuvred around the stage like a cross between mannequin and a military cannon by his colleagues who dress him up in the evolving fashions in uniform. There's a sad, hypnotic sequence where, to intensifying music, the men respond to mail from their loved ones in a strange, ritualised sign-language, poignantly betokening the inner turmoil, and there's a startling martial ballet which works to a crescendo as the men get rid of their mutual frustrations in overlapping spurts of pugilism.

The cast achieve perfection both at the drilled physical dynamism and the filthy, expletive-choked gallows humour. We see them being forced to tear down their porn pin-ups in readiness for the embedded journalists and TV cameras. But if those pics might offend local sensibility, what about the photographs of cars? "We wouldnay want the Muslim world thinking we were here tay steal their petrol," jokes Emun Elliott's charismatic wag, Fraz. As the play traces the arc of Cammy's mounting disillusion, there's the gutting sense that (in the officer's words), it has taken 300 years to build this globally respected unit, "but it only takes three years pissing about in the desert in the biggest western foreign policy disaster ever to fuck it up completely". Full of intelligent, heart-twisting ambivalence, Black Watch is a landmark event.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering