Sometimes, in transforming tragic events into art, a terrible beauty emerges.
Such is the case in the National Theatre of Scotland’s much-acclaimed touring production of Gregory Burke’s 2006 play, “Black Watch.” The Drill Court at the Armory provides enough space, and a suitably bleak atmosphere, for such a dramatic, and at times downright thrilling, spectacle.
In 2004, a regiment of the Black Watch — a branch of the Scottish military with a centuries-old history — was sent to the so-called Triangle of Death in Iraq to replace American forces departing for Fallujah.
Based on interviews with vets and directed with exquisite precision and flair by John Tiffany, “Black Watch” shows how the Scottish warriors endured long stretches of stupefied boredom periodically interrupted by bombardments of mortar and rockets from the insurgents.
Over the course of almost two intermissionless hours, the scenes move seamlessly between the soldiers’ scorching desert encampment and, postwar, a pub in Scotland, where the vets are being interviewed by, yes, a playwright. There, at times, among the imaginative stage effects, a pool table turns into an armored wagon where soldiers sit rigidly awaiting the next attack.
At other times, they race across the long playing area, rifles at the ready; march in elaborate drill formation; erupt into a veritable ballet of fisticuffs to relieve their tension; sing traditional Scottish songs; and generally cuss, swagger, joke and kibitz their way through a horrific ordeal.
In the pub, the soldiers face their nervous interviewer from a watchful distance. They’ve arrived home disillusioned from this controversial war. In various ways, they’ve been pawns in a political game, their very identity as a revered regiment undermined by their government.
Steven Hoggett’s choreography, executed flawlessly by the 10 actors (some of whom play several roles), includes one particularly dreamlike movement sequence that depicts a true event: the death, by suicide bomber, of three of the soldiers.
Heart-stopping moments like this, enhanced by Colin Grenfell’s lighting design and an all-encompassing soundscape by Gareth Fry, plus Davey Anderson’s stirring music (with, at one point, actor Cameron Barnes on bagpipe), can be experienced only in live performance.
Less rewarding are the talkier scenes. Some overly didactic speeches, the thick Scottish accents (although carefully articulated by the actors) and the very expanse and acoustics of the Drill Court (so effective for painting the larger picture) prevent us from getting to know the soldiers as distinct individuals. That’s disappointing, but not a deal-breaker.
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: Armory Community Center, 333 14th St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes June 16
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org