BWW Reviews: BLACK WATCH at the Shakespeare Theatre is Electrifying

By: Feb. 02, 2011

It was back in 1963 that I attended a concert of mass bands at the Boston Garden and was introduced to the pipers,  drummers , and dancers of The Black Watch, Scotland's senior Royal Highland Regiment (42nd Regiment). It was thrilling observing the sound and spectacle.

Then in 1976, I had the privilege to see The Black Watch on their home turf performing at the Edinburgh Military Tatoo in front of the beautifully illuminated Edinburgh Castle. (For a video highlight visit

The history of the The Black Watch begins in 1725 when it was an independent company to police the Highlands. The name originated from the dark color of the tartan and the role of "watching" the Highland clans. The distinctive Red Hackle (red vulture feathers) began in 1795 as a symbol of gallantry and devotion to duty. Visit their web site at where one can buy many variations of souvenirs.  I didn't notice that the website had any copies of the Gregory Burke play for sale yet. But, the Shakespeare Theatre gift shop has copies of the play and you can even buy an autographed copy.

The Black Watch play began its incarnation as a hit of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2006. A year later, it played in Brooklyn, NY at St. Ann's Warehouse where it was the recipient of many awards including "Theatrical Event of the Year" by New York Magazine, and made the New York Times' "Top Ten Plays of 2007."

As soon as you enter Sidney Harman Hall you'll notice about 200 seats that have been added on at the rear of the stage. The pre-show music  is from The Black Watch Pipes and Drums (from the album "The Ladies from Hell). 10 spotlights are spraying the theater haphazardly with the blue Scottish flag (with the White Saint Andrew's Cross) prominent. You just know you are about to see something special. And you do.

The play, like the wonderful recent "Re-Entry" at Center Stage, is taken from  real interviews with soldiers relating their experiences in Iraq. It begins in a pub in Scotland where the veterans of "The Black Watch" are being asked about their life during the war.  You know you're in for something different when the felt surface of the pool table tears open and out steps not one but two soldiers in their combat fatigues.  There should have been an announcement then to say, "Ladies and Gentlemen, fasten your seat belts, you're going to be taken for a ride." And what a ride it is.

Through the magic of theater, with a creative director such as John Tiffany, one is transported to Iraq with spectacular and realistic sound (Gareth Fry), imaginative lighting (Colin Grenfell), clever video designs (Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer), an inventive set (Laura Hopkins), a mosaic of music (Davey Anderson), and muscular movements (Steven Hoggett).  You will never forget the movement represented by soldiers flying through the air following a roadside bomb.

And wait until you see the history of the Black Watch via the quickest quick change ever on a stage when Jack Lowden (playing the role of Cammy)  puts on each of the various uniforms in their history  in rapid succession thanks to costume designer Jessica Brettle's clever use of Velcro.

The entire cast is phenomenal.  Paul Higgins, who plays the Writer and Sergeant, is the only  member of the original 2006 cast. The remaining cast members are Ross Anderson, Cameron Barnes, Scott Fletcher, Stuart Martin, Ian Pirie, Jamie Quinn, Richard Rankin, and Chris Starkle. The two understudies are Adam McNamara and Paul Tinto. Four of these cast members have relations that once served in the Black Watch.

You can sum up the play with this quote spoken by one of the soldiers. "It takes 300 years to make a great army and two years in the desert to make the biggest western disaster ever." It is an ode to the courage of soldiers and to the foils and foolishness that sometimes causes war.

The show ends with the actors portraying the precision march of The Black Watch.

The tour continues next at the University of North Carolina (Feb. 9-13), the University of Texas (Feb. 16-20) and the Broadway Armory in Chicago March 29 to April 10.

I wish I could have attended the opening night performance which offered a traditional Scottish Burns Supper. It featured a presentation of Robert Burns'  Ode to a Haggis  performed by Tony Award nominee Euan Morton who just recently performed at Center Stage and in Chess at the Signature Theatre. Morton is returning to the Signature to perform for only two nights,February 10 and 11.

The Shakespeare Theatre should be commended for bringing this amazing production to the Baltimore/Washington area.  It ends Sunday afternoon, Feb. 6 at 2 p.m. For tickets, call 202-547-1122 or visit It is recommended for ages 13 and above. The theater stresses that late-comers will not be seated.

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Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan