Theatre on both sides of the Irish Sea

Considering my close proximity to the great cultural hub of Edinburgh, home of the Festival and countless venues, it really is shameful that I hardly ever go to the theatre. However, it would seem that when it rains, it pours and this week I’ve seen not one but two terrific productions, one in Dublin and the other in Aberdeen.

Last weekend, I flew home to Dublin as I had hardly seen my family all summer. The night before I was due to return to Scotland, my father and I went to see a play by Ibsen called John Gabriel Borkman.

Set in the late 19th century, the play is based on an incident that Ibsen recorded from an earlier period in his life, the attempted suicide of an army officer who had been accused of embezzlement. The Borkman family fortunes have been brought low by the imprisonment of John Gabriel who used his position as a bank manager to illegally speculate with his investors’ money. The action of the play takes place eight years after Borkman’s release when John Gabriel Borkman, Mrs. Borkman, and her twin sister Ella Rentheim battle over the future of young Erhart Borkman. The cast includes some serious talent including Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw of Aunt Petunia fame, as well as Lindsay Duncan, who played Servilia of the Junii in the HBO series Rome. The play’s timing made it very interesting to watch. The Irish public’s recent experiences with the likes of Anglo-Irish Bank has now led to a severe lack of sympathy for a story such as that of John Gabriel Borkman’s.

The play, though written as a tragedy, was treated by the audience as though it were a black comedy, with many people laughing out loud at Borkman’s clear signs of delusion and desolation. A figure such as his simply did not pull at the heartstrings of an audience already hardened against such tales of moral failure.

On Friday night, I went with a bunch of university friends to see the award-winning Black Watch play by Gregory Burke at the AECC. The play is synonymous with the famous Black Watch Regiment, the most senior regiment of the Highlanders. It is based on stories heard by the playwright during his research interviews with former soldiers of the Black Watch who had fought in the controversial and on-going conflict in Iraq.

In late 2004, the Black Watch Regiment, which is based around Tayside and Fife, was the focus of a  political controversy resulting from a United States Army request for British forces to be moved further north outside of the British-controlled South-East of Iraq in order to replace forces temporarily redeployed for the Second Battle of Fallujah.Despite objections in Parliament, the deployment went ahead. Based at Camp Dogwood located between Fallujah and Karbala, in an area later dubbed the “Triangle of Death”, the Black Watch came under heavy and prolonged mortar and rocket attack by insurgents. On the 4th November, three soldiers and an interpreter were killed by a car bomb at a check point. The high profile nature of the deployment caused a magnification of these deaths back home in Britain.

As if this were not enough, later that same year it was officially announced that the Regiment was to be amalgamated with all other Scottish Division regiments to form what is now the Royal Regiment of Scotland. The Secretary of Defence of the day, Geoff Hoon, was heavily criticised by the SNP for “stabbing the soldiers in the back” and being motivated solely by political and administrative concerns, with little regard to the effect on morale.

The play deals with a fictional platoon of soldiers experiencing all of the above first hand. Through song, dance and acting, the show tells the story of a regiment with a proud history and a war that to this day leans heavily on the national conscience. It is magnificent.

From its first performance at the Edinburgh Festival in 2006, the show has received rave reviews, standing ovations and 22 awards. I had expected something very good, but I was blown away by the raw, uncomfortable, visceral urgency of it. I was struck by how relevant the story still is today, with the conflict in Afghanistan showing no signs of an imminent end.

The production was all the more arresting for that one of the lads I saw it with is joining the Black Watch next September.

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