Brogue state

The National Theatre of Scotland does a tour of duty in Iraq with Black Watch.

GREAT SCOTS The cast of Black Watch gets ready for battle.

GREAT SCOTS The cast of Black Watch gets ready for battle. Manuel Harlan

When Gregory Burke was approached to write a play about Scotland's esteemed Black Watch infantry regiment three years ago, its soldiers were on their second tour of duty in Iraq. During that brutal deployment, five were killed in a single 11-day period. Back in Britain, meanwhile, another demoralizing event was taking shape: the decision to absorb all Scottish regiments into a single unit, essentially demoting the 300-year-old Black Watch to a battalion.

The loss of colleagues and identity left its mark on the warriors, who, like Burke, hail from a very concentrated working-class area within Scotland's Fife region. For some, the Black Watch is a profession handed down from one generation to the next. The playwright, 39, had known men who served and was drawn to this close-knit band of brothers. "The arts community in Britain has tended to view soldiers as either thuggish agents of the state or exploited young boys, with nothing in the middle," says Burke, a witty fellow who turns serious when talking about his play, Black Watch, now running at St. Ann's Warehouse. Unlike David Hare's Stuff Happens, another British import about Iraq, Black Watch studies the men in the trenches rather than those in the halls of power. For research, Burke went to a pub to interview soldiers who'd recently left their unit. "I wanted to just make it about them...the reasons they might be in the army, what they find when they get there and why they leave, to give a voice that hasn't been there."

Those voices resounded to critical acclaim in Scotland, where this ten-actor multimedia performance piece debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, staged site-specifically in a drill hall near Edinburgh Castle. Chilling and provocative, the action veers between pub-set interview scenes and deployment episodes, with song, movement, video and ear-splitting special effects heightening the experience.

From the outset, director John Tiffany knew Black Watch wouldn't be a traditional drama. "I didn't think [naturalism] would articulate properly the epic nature of the subject we were dealing with," he says. Tiffany—the associate director of new work for the first-ever, government-funded National Theatre of Scotland—found Burke's first play, Gagarin Way, among a pile of submissions and directed it at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre in 2001. (NTS is also presenting The Wolves in the Walls at the New Victory Theater)

News of the production caught the attention of St. Ann's artistic director Susan Feldman, who was struck by its "extreme amounts of testosterone and vulnerability." Feldman thinks it may take some time before we see similar work from an American company. "We do our best work with personal stories," she says. "I don't think many American playwrights have attempted to bridge the cultural divide to get close enough to [our own soldiers]."

Although neither Burke nor Tiffany ever served in the military, they noticed that what the Black Watch soldiers didn't say about politics or emotional struggles was often as telling as what they did relate. So the creative team frequently lets action do the talking, such as scenes where the soldiers battle desert heat or receive mail from home. "The subject forced us in that direction, but it's also about trying to put the audience in the field of war," Tiffany explains.

In pursuit of greater authenticity, the directors and performers went through a sort of boot camp of their own thanks to a regimental sergeant major who showed them how to parade, and treated them as if they were members of his squad. Any laughter was squelched by punishment of push-ups. "It was very illuminating in terms of discipline and respect," Tiffany recalls. "He was really hard on us, and he would tell us what rubbish we were." By the end of their crash course, they felt the pride of accomplishment when he brought them outside to march in public.

For the real Black Watch soldiers, perhaps because of what Burke calls their "tribal" nature, that pride didn't lead to the fiery patriotism associated with U.S. vets; it was more about having successfully completed a job they trained for. In fact, Burke says the reason many left wasn't that they hated fighting, but that they were disillusioned about why they were fighting. "One of the lines in the play is, 'We invaded their country, we fucked up their day,'" he says. "And that was their way of thinking: At the end of the day, we're the fucking bad people here."

Black Watch is at St. Ann's Warehouse through Nov 11.