National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch arrives in South Korea
ALREADY an international hit, Black Watch has been given a warm welcome at its latest stop – South Korea – a country which has strong links to both the play’s story and the regiment itself, writes Dani Garavelli
As the cast of the National Theatre of Scotland’s internationally-acclaimed Black Watch touched down in Seoul earlier this week, the excitement in the 10m-strong city was already building. After travelling straight from Chicago, where the production won the rave reviews it attracts everywhere it goes, the actors could reasonably have hoped for a low-key reception to allow them to recover. But having lobbied for two years to bring Black Watch to the capital, the National Theatre of Korea was keen to fete its guests and celebrate its dramatic coup.
Not since the play visited Northern Ireland, where the role of the Black Watch in policing the Troubles is still hugely controversial, has its arrival in a new location caused such a stir. Yesterday, director John Tiffany, whose Tony award-winning production of Once on Broadway makes him especially popular with musical-loving Koreans – faced a battery of Press conferences and interviews before the first of four performances was staged in the 1,563-capacity Haeoreum Hall last night. A number of VIPs will be attending during the tour, including Ted Chung, the CEO of Hyundai Card – who is a Steve Jobs-type figure in South Korean business.
“When I saw the schedule they’d lined up for us I thought – wow, this is big,” says Tiffany. “It’s similar to the buzz we experienced in Belfast, but this time there’s none of the animosity. Soldiers from Black Watch helped to defend the country during the Korean War, so I think maybe the interest is more of a goodwill thing.”
Since Black Watch made its debut at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival, it has played to 200,000 people across three continents. But the visit to Seoul is groundbreaking. It marks the first time the play has been performed for a non-English speaking audience and - despite the fact it is delivered in a Fife dialect many Scots find challenging – the first time subtitles have been used.
Notwithstanding its vibrant theatrical scene, Seoul might seem an odd choice of location for a play which centres on a group of Scots squaddies sent to Iraq. But, says Tiffany, the play has a strong resonance in South Korea, which sent the third-biggest contingent of soldiers to the country after the US and the UK. “I was curious to see how the play would go down in New Zealand, the first place outside the UK we took the production to, as it didn’t send any soldiers to Iraq. South Korea, on the other hand, had thousands of troops deployed there. So, in a way, we are telling a story closer to the people of Seoul than to the people of Wellington.”
As most Scottish theatre-goers will know, the script of Black Watch evolved from interviews playwright Gregory Burke carried out with members of the regiment who had been served in Iraq. It is not overtly political – although Tiffany has strong views on Tony Blair’s decision to go to war – but explores the sense of bewilderment many soldiers experienced.
“We tried not to infect the words of the soldiers,” Tiffany says. “Their priority was to do their job properly and what we were interested in was the fact they weren’t able to do that because of all the political machinations.”
It was the universality of this theme – of the ordinary soldier as a pawn in a wider game – that persuaded Youngsook Kim, project co-ordinator with the National Theatre of Korea, that the play would be a perfect fit for its annual World Festival of National Theatres. “I wasn’t aware of the Black Watch soldiers before I saw the play in Edinburgh,” she says. “But I thought this was something everyone should see so they can understand what is happening right now and see war is not fun.”
Unlike the UK, South Korea still has National Service – the vast majority of men are expected to serve 21 months in the military, with “draft-dodging” seen as tantamount to treason. “Because of this it will be very meaningful for us,” Youngsook says.
Black Watch is doubly relevant to theatre-goers in South Korea because of the role the regiment played during the Korean War. After the Second World War, Korea, previously under Japanese control, was divided at the 38th parallel, with the US taking South Korea and the USSR the North. However, in 1950, the North Korean People’s Army invaded South Korea. UN forces were mustered to defend the south, but, as the North Koreans retreated, the UN soldiers pursued them beyond the 38th parallel and towards the Manchurian border.
Soon China entered the fray sending soldiers to defend its territory. Soldiers from The Black Watch were involved in two major battles at the Hook – a hill of strategic importance to UN forces. In the second battle, 60 years ago next month, they were subjected to attacks by waves of Chinese troops. After stiff hand-to-hand fighting and the use of artillery fire, Black Watch soldiers succeeded in fending them off. As a result, the Hook became the regiment’s 151st and most recent battle honour.
How much of this history those who see the play will be aware of is unclear, but there is little doubt the country still feels a debt of gratitude towards western forces. The Black Watch’s time in Korea is mentioned in the play and a group of serving soldiers were at last night’s performance and met the cast afterwards.
Although the play is definitively Scottish (Tiffany says the actors have to tone down their accents when they are performing anywhere other than Glenrothes), it is also eminently exportable.
“I think one thing Scottish theatre can be very proud of is that it is inherently international because, from 7:84 onwards, its traditions are very much music and movement and a strong visual sense,” says Tiffany. “That’s certainly what we were trying to harness when we created Black Watch and it does make it more internationally transportable”.
The fact that, traditionally, South Korean performers used dance, shaman ritual and circus to tell their stories also means their audiences are likely to respond to the physicality of the piece. The only thing which has proved a slight challenge has been the earthy language of the squaddies – and, in particular, the frequent use of the F-word. “We didn’t translate it exactly because that word isn’t really used in that way here,” says Youngsook. “But we tried to find another way to capture the feeling being expressed by the soldiers.”
The visit to South Korea – which comes as the NTS takes the Citizens Theatre production of David Greig’s The Monster in the Hall to China – marks another high point in a heady year for the organisation, which earlier this week appointed Laurie Sansom as its new artistic director, and for Tiffany.
In June, Alan Cumming’s one-man Macbeth, co-directed by Tiffany and Andy Goldberg, received a rapturous reception in Glasgow before moving to New York, while Enquirer, a docu-drama about the state of the newspaper industry, had successful runs in Glasgow and London and will be heading to Belfast next week. And there’s no let-up. Early next year, Tiffany will direct a new production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie at the American Repertory Theatre in Harvard, before heading back to the UK for the opening of Once in London in March. Next year, too, he is directing the headline production of NTS’s 2013 season – an adaptation of the cult Swedish horror film Let the Right One In. As for Black Watch, a return to Glasgow has just been announced for next year, with a run at the SECC from 28 March to 13 April, before touring the US again, with visits to Seattle from 25 April to 5 May and then San Francisco from 9 May to 16 June.
He is aware of the irony in the play’s abiding popularity; it has kept its urgency because fresh conflicts keep igniting. In Seoul, however, the cast are simply enjoying the adventure of visiting a new country and the attention being lavished on them by their hosts. According to Adam McDougall, an NTS press officer who is travelling with the production, they have been sightseeing and learning etiquette such as the correct way to receive gifts and summon a waiter. They have also been invited to a karaoke bar – so long as Cammy (the main character) brings his bagpipes.
Having visited the Gangnam neighbourhood, home of the dance craze sweeping the globe, they are toying with using the routine in one of their warm-up sessions. No doubt the actors will take to the stage with a degree of trepidation, but with all performances sold out, it seems South Korea has already taken the story of the soldiers of the Black Watch regiment to its heart.
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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