Black Watch at CarriageWorks, Sydney Festival: TJIF
This is a great show, but I didn't 'enjoy it'.
This opening is our compliment to the scriptwriters who use the verbal device of contradiction to challenge throughout this play: It's a highly energetic intensely macho production with intricate choreography and a great study of gender - personal, institutional, national, international, military, civilian, war, peace, social, antisocial, patriarchal. Boy and man as state authorised killers.
As expected one needs a moral toolkit to grapple the spin in this play which to us is work and duty rather than entertainment. This show indeed is not meant for a deconstructionist micro news site, but we are meant for it which I suppose is why we pitched for the ABC radio quiz to get the freebie. It's meant for rich moral lightweights who need exercising, so take the drill here.
TJIF: The Job Is F*cked.
That phrase is not in the script. It's reportage of honest police in NSW in despair at systemic corruption in their Force resorting to graffiti on station walls. Police-graffiti. Delicious irony isn't it? I catch myself adopting a faux Scots accent because the Blackies (my term) are very brogue. (Like my $120 leather shoes in 1985).
It's a cultural milieu of one white tribe, like crims and cops both in The Departed as swaggering cruel Irish Americans based in Boston:
By coincidence we watched it on DVD literally the day before seeing Black Watch, and it's a classy film also fertile with gutter talk for authenticity. This is accepted but still doesn't make it right. We Celts are really something which is I suppose why my younger sister spent a good year or more in Edinburgh as an art student.
The perspective of 'an honest telling of criminal endeavour' albeit gut wrenching suggested to me this play was going to be difficult. And then there were the the hard back chairs for the sell out audience after near heat stroke that day (3 hours in a rock yard garden job), or fatigue (cycling 20 km).
Then add maudlin nostalgia for our first love, a willowy Australian of Scots heritage, let's call her Polly McKenzie. The woman 20 metres opposite looked sufficiently similar. Yes there was a definite gathering of the clans in the audience before the actors even appeared. Certainly all this and a general foreknowledge of the grim subject matter was ominous.
But actually it was the alleged 'balance' one so expects of an ABC endorsed event, a suspicion reflected in the review by the 'balanced' Australian, noticed just now, from Jan 8th:
Angry young men | The Australian
Yes angry. At times. Other times not, so why the headline exactly? Manic young men? Mad? Wronged? Cynical? Certainly not left wing or wet politics. And herein lies the mind f*ck which ought be teased out for one's own peace. Ironically the clue comes from the gutter language opening lines. Something similar to this:
You think you f*ckin know what a solider is like. You don't. You think you know because this war is wrong, illegal. You don't. I could have done something else, I'm not a dumb c*nt, kuckledragger. I chose to go to Iraq.
(Actually the c-word is embellishment, the actual quote is in The Oz and would of course have been too "unrestrained" so early. It appears later on - regularly.)
The audience realistically has no choice but to swallow the opening gambit having already been warned twice in booming imperatives there is strictly "no re-admittance" and to "refrain from using any audio or photographic equipment" setting the hierarchical tone of an army, regardless of paid up ticket, hard thin chairs, foul jarring language to sensitive elegant folks.
Once we swallow that impertinence - like the fabled JRR Tolkien literary device hooking us with a realist fantasy (to suspend disbelief) - the crudity effectively suspends standards of decency, and we are emotionally strapped in for the 1.5 hour ride. A reasonable metaphor given the ride the soliders take, several fatally.
This is not simply the crudity I grew up with in countless football dressing sheds across rural and regional western Victoria, or many labouring type jobs later. This language is amplified by proximity to blood soaked war, bombs, tanks and the guns these guys carry as tools of trade. Not leather bladders for kicking. The only bladders are the ones smeared across a tarmac by an IED or suicide bomber. The crudity has menace which perhaps is why there is no Iraqi civil society in the play to expose it for what it is: Institutional thuggery. Imagine that, Arabs more civilised than white folks.
And we apologise profusely for the smothered sneeze close to the climax of the show, but the noise is so loud and the light so bright and the haze so intoxicating, one ought not to "worry about it" (imagine brogue).
There were VIPs in the audience like Stephen Loosely, George Negus, Margaret Throsby, the movie show girl and friend. I would swear my old contracts lecture Robin Creyke at ANU in 1983 (!), took the ride. The audience applauded loud and genuine. These very fit marauding pseudo Edinburgh Tattoo laddies "earned it". The acting was excellent, the exertions convincing of crack troops forged in boot camp.
The language was disgusting typical of corrupt paradigms, working class or not, the mysogny clear as daylight and strange to see digested so willingly by the well dressed audience men and women both. But easily the most disturbing and seriously ugly apsect of the show is the racist airbrush of Iraq's 150,00-600,000 violent/excess dead since March 2003 : A taboo was in the house. We were there to see and hear and feel the modern angst of white boys sent on a false political mission: TJIF.
Herein was my lack of enjoyment of a 'special' production? A "must see" according to The Oz. It's about the politics and it's not gainsaid by this:
"I hate that kind of theatre that preaches a woolly, liberal left-wing agenda to a woolly, liberal left-wing audience, and then they all pat themselves on the back and go out to dinner," Tiffany says at his hotel in Manhattan's East Village. "What we wanted to do was challenge the audience we knew would be coming to think about the soldiers, these boys who are actually being betrayed more than anybody else." Director, John Tiffany as quoted in The Australian
It's all about the soldiers you see. Which presumably is much easier to get funding for too when Blair is still at his height, and Howard too when booking the Sydney Festival in. This is a show military families can go to and say 'f*ck the politicians' in unison with critics of the war. But let's not get too coy here. Joining the military is a moral abdication of choice over life and death called taking orders. TJIF.
The ABC and Sydney Festival can promote this show for exactly the reason it is safely 'balanced' to 'our boys' as per the racist airbrush of the domestic Iraqi population which the Coalition of the Willing has always sought to do, even allowing for 'the 4 hour bombing' scene, 'Not warring, bullying. They had no chance'. How true. One can hate wet liberal pandering presentation without losing the cut through, just read George Orwell.
Indeed a cutting critique of ineffective tactics on activist Indymedia comes to mind:
They can have their war as long as we can have our protest march?
Alternative version here in Black Watch: The mild folk can have an angsty hand wringing theatrical solidarity with soldier boys, and the military industrial complex can have their war. Today, tomorrow yesterday. For 4 years 8 months now. Ever since the shock and awe bombing in March 2003.
Tiffany as director shouldn't kid himself the enthusiastic Sydney audience weren't also pandering to the ascendant western geopolitik under W Bush, and only recently released from Howard-Blair dogma. Otherwise they might have hissed and booed, not the actors per se, but the characters ammoral rationalisations. Or more like refusal to even enter the moral universe. Stone cold tools of death despite all the sniggering and banter.
The critical moment for this scribe: A soldier character (as pictured above, who cracks up) says to the researcher with incredulity:
"What's this got to do with the f*cking Iraqis?"
Our audience here in Sydney all laughed in what we believe was recognition at the incongruous fact that the Iraq war is not about Iraqis. They're just collateral damage. But I didn't laugh: White boy angst OK: Arabic wholesale slaughter taboo, is ugly subtext. At least soldier boy chose whether to join up.
For better or worse we felt the racist solidarity in that laughter that gives pre-eminence to a relatively small number of military over hundreds of thousands of different folks. It's an abhorrent and outrageous assertion. The long applause at the finale was uncomfortably pregnant with the glaring omission of Iraqi society, the non people. The profound truth remains it's the 'me war' for oil as admitted in naive clarity by then Defence Minister, now Liberal Party Leader here, Brendan Nelson late 2007.
And now apparently it's the 'me army' to service society's comfort zone. Hence we read a somewhat plausible puff recently in the Sydney Daily Telegraph tabloid said to be written by a nonchalant Iraq War US military victim who conveniently doesn't begrudge his USA govt, or feel any bitterness at, his own death. That's right, it's an opinion piece to be published ex post facto. Take a bow Pentagon PR department.
Interestingly the soldier's website said to be this: "andrewolmsted.com" is not loading 5 days later.
To be fair to script, actors, director et al, the c*ckhead supremely fit soldiers, carry out their mindless drills at the end to manifest the mad energy of war itself.
Like my own Irish heritage can be.
It's a drug fest of a kind, dressed up in its own vocab, sound and uniforms, and that drug is Ultra Violence, just like the charming Jack Nicholson character Costello, an indefatigable industrial scale murderer, in The Departed above. The only difference here is state versus civil murder.
To be honest and this is to the director in particular, I personally draw the line at murder as art, and mass murder especially. Show us the missing Iraqis. Or don't you have the artistic integrity?
All the same I don't begrudge the fine young actors their summer in sunny Australia compared to the bitter cold of Scotland at this time. As actors they earned it.
We like the bagpipes, like in ACDC, Long Way to the Top sung by working class Scottish Australian Bon Scott who killed himself with legal drugs, the rock business "harder than it looks":
Indeed we feel that song helped get us through a science/law degree, off the shop floor.
We still remember the bagpipes at the funeral of Andy McNaughtan in North Sydney January 2004 a true hero who without lifting a gun perhaps did more than any Australian civilian to free East Timor from the military grip of Suharto's corrupt mass murdering Indonesian military.
Dr Andrew McNaughton, Human rights campaigner 1954- 2003
Black Watch is a cultural experience and theatre that takes you out of yourself, so in that sense mission accomplished by Sydney Festival, but they can keep the 'balance'.
Postscript # 1 14 Jan 2008
The Big Media broadsheets both have flattering reviews today (SMH offline Tartan warriors offer up a worthy dramatic centrepiece), and The Australian (offline, From the pits to darkness of war). The former completely ignores the use of blue language at all (interesting and surely conscious choice, and its true the f-word is even accepted in court cases as every day language these days, but not the c-ord ...yet). Similarly the Daily Telegraph slightly stilted tv preview here, the play is much more dynamic: Video: Sneak preview - Black Watch
But of more significance politically is that the higher circulation Daily Telegraph tabloid and SMH both have stories about controversial arts funding of theatre - which echoes ours above re war govt under Blair and Howard funding of BlackWatch as safe because it glorifies and quarrantines 'our boys' in equal measure from criticism:
Theatre life not all peaches and cream
Festival company rejects grant A MAJOR Sydney Festival theatre company has returned $750,000 as a protest - despite admitting the decision makes terrible business sense.
Postscript #2 17th Jan 2008
A story quite possibly leveraging the focus provided by the Black Watch theatre production: Local moving version of reality is front page of the The Australian main colour pic of Sergeant Michael Lyddiard, less an eye, a right forearm and left thumb and forefinger, hugged by his wife and mother of their 4 year child. Lyddiard is a bomb disposal expert badly injured by a roadside bomb in Aghanistan.
Posted by editor
at 8:57 AM EADT
Updated: Thursday, 17 January 2008 11:50 AM EADT