Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Black Watch” Chronicles Soldiers in the Iraq War

At a few moments during “Black Watch,” it sounds as if fighter jets are actually dropping bombs inside the Broadway Armory on Chicago’s North Side.

Everything seems joltingly real—the roar of aircraft, the shock of explosions, the flashes of light.

But as impressive as those effects are, what makes playwright Gregory Burke’s “Black Watch” so memorable and exceptional is its convincing, almost documentary-like portrayal of Scottish soldiers fighting in the Iraq War. A true ensemble performance, Chicago Shakespeare’s presentation of “Black Watch” features 10 top-notch actors from the National Theatre of Scotland, which originated the play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2006.

The drama echoes other group portraits of young men at war in Iraq, including the Oscar-winning film “The Hurt Locker” and the HBO miniseries “Generation Kill,” as well as the grueling stories from previous wars. As brave as these soldiers surely are, military heroics are not the main point of “Black Watch.” Instead, the play shows the fresh-faced Scots killing time in the desert while they wait for something to happen and wonder what they’re fighting for. They’re a rambunctious bunch, sometimes hotheaded and always vulgar. (Be warned: “Black Watch” is overflowing with foul language, and the Scottish accents are thick but definitely decipherable.)

Rather than following a straightforward plot, “Black Watch” shifts back and forth in time and place, alternating between Iraq and an interview the soldiers are giving to a journalist back in Scotland. Some scenes, including one in which the soldiers silently read letters, play out like metaphorical dances. The choreography is barely noticeable as choreography, however, since the actors slip into their movements so naturally.

Dreamlike reveries, military pageantry, gritty realism and stunning violence all flow through “Black Watch,” creating a powerful spectacle.

“Black Watch” runs through April 10 at the Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway, Chicago. For tickets, call 312-595-5600 or visit chicagoshakes.com.

About the author: Robert Loerzel is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Playbill, Chicago magazine, the Chicago Reader and other publications, as well as on WBEZ Chicago Public Radio.