Jack Fortune abandons his post as a cast member of Black Watch – an explosive New Zealand International Arts Festival production about Iraq-deployed soldiers under Scotland’s legendary 300-year-old regiment – to talk to MELODY NIXON about the play and its theatre of war.

Jack Fortune in ‘Black Watch’

JACK FORTUNE says Black Watch does not purport a particular political viewpoint. That may be difficult for some New Zealand viewers to digest. Any piece of theatre about the Iraq war must be inherently political, right? Not so, says Fortune; this piece of theatrical mastery is more of an attempt at an ‘objective sketch’ of the lives of Scottish soldiers sent to the war than a political work which promotes particular “anti-” ideals.

The military is a complex and multi-faceted beast. “I love nothing more than a parade,” states Jack, “to watch my dad, marching with his company, in front of all the colours, and all that stuff.” The actor descends from a line of Black Watch soldiers. “And yet, I know that there’s a whole another side to it, which is that these guys have been, and have to be, extremely ruthless in order to do their job, and to survive.”

There’s a sense of realism combined with Jack’s reverence for the ritual and community of the military then, and the same can be said of the National Theatre of Scotland’s show. These guys are brutal, and what happens to them is brutal. The show doesn’t mince words when it comes to the costs involved in the “mistaken” invasion of Iraq.

But if the show isn’t promoting any particular political stance, what are its intentions? Director John Tiffany states in his programme note that he came to Black Watch through a contemplation of how he might “honour and rouse” the traditions of Scottish theatre.

“I think Black Watch is an interpretation, primarily from John Tiffany’s point of view,” says Fortune. “He coordinated what was an ensemble piece – in terms of it being a devised piece, around Gregory Burke’s script. I think he was trying to put into movement, as well as into words, what he thought the soldiers’ experience was, both during the war and after.

“If there’s a statement in the play, it happens in the parade. The parade is a fiction obviously, but it’s a revocation. It’s a subversion of the traditions of the Edinburgh Tattoo. People tell me how powerful they find that. The parade has a lot of impact. And, true to the play, it’s non verbal.”

With a soft voice and thoughtful words it’s not a surprise to learn that Jack Fortune likes the non-verbal parts of the play best. A gentile, courteous and gracious person, he is not someone New Zealanders might immediately associate with army stock. But as Fortune describes, the army, at least in Scotland, is not simply a force of evil; and the soldiers’ who partake face complicated and conflicting decisions.

All this and more Fortune imparted in the Festival Club on a bright afternoon this week, where we had stopped for a quiet chat between shows.

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MN: I’m wondering about two things that might help New Zealanders to put Black Watch into its context in Scotland. Firstly, what is the general feeling in Scotland about the invasion of Iraq?

JF: I think Scotland is a very small country, and it makes a disproportionate contribution to the army in the United Kingdom. Everybody knows someone who has served… I think it’s fair to say that most people are not in favour of the war.

MN: And how do you think the voice of the play has contributed to the discussion around the war in Iraq, in Scotland? Where would you place it in the spectrum of voices?

JF: Hmm, I honestly don’t know how to answer that. Because the play doesn’t purport to be about the war, it’s not an anti-war play, it’s not an anti-Iraq play. Though it does show the cost, and the position of the production of the play about that cost is clear, because people are made to feel very strongly, in a very raw way. You get to know these guys, and then they die. I haven’t actually performed it in Scotland so that’s probably why I can’t answer your question.

MN: So, a non-political play about the Iraq war, how is that possible? Isn’t everything political, especially if it’s trying not to be?

JF: I think a lot of it is about interpretation. John Tiffany was very keen not to put politics into the words of the soldiers. My character [the Officer] provides a very sketchy political context, in terms of how the deployment came about, and touches on the issue of amalgamation, but… rather than put feelings into the voices of the soldiers’, they [Tiffany and his team] use other means. The ‘letters from home’ scene is a great example.

MN: How about overseas, in other countries?

JF: I know that when we were in the States, in a very very small way, people valued the fact that – not in any national sense – the play presented an opposing point of view, because the voice of opposition doesn’t necessary get much play in the States. That was their point of view, and I think that it was interesting for them because they saw it in terms of the costs to another nation, not their own. Because they’re obviously aware of all these American young men coming back from Iraq, badly injured. And I think that because it gave that slight perspective I think in a very American way they thought ‘oh, well, we’re not alone’.

MN: How about responses from soldiers who served in the war itself? Did you get many viewing the show?

JF: Yep, we had quite a few veterans come to Los Angeles, a local National Guard unit. They found it very telling. And very… difficult. But, very true.

MN: Very difficult emotionally?

JF: Yes, because the heart of the play is about losing comrades or men you’ve been serving with. And I think that touched… we had some forums where soldiers who’d become writers or activists spoke, very eloquently and at some length, about their experiences and how the play touched on it. It was quite important for the actors to hear that because we can get a bit carried away with our own little moment of glory, and the success of the show. So it’s important to remind ourselves that although it’s a fictitious setting and characters are fictitious, the story of the play turns on three men who actually died. They’re not the only men who died by any manner or means, but these are three characters you get to know.

“I’m quite schizophrenic because I’ve marched against the war. I thought it was a major folly, a tragic folly. But I’m from an army background, and although I learnt to question many aspects of the military world as I grew up, I also have a very strong sense of loyalty towards it too. And that doesn’t trouble me – I don’t find that contradictory.”

MN: Have you met any serving Black Watch soldiers?

JF: I haven’t, but I’ve heard, I know that they like it. The one thing they don’t particularly like is the letters scene – they find it a bit wishy washy. Most audiences find that scene quite touching.

MN: You’re a descendent of Black Watch soldiers yourself, so you have a personal connection there, but you hadn’t seen the show until you started performing in it. What was it that convinced you to come onboard?

JF: Well I remember seeing some pre-publicity for it, and… I couldn’t get in to see it. You know it was such an immediate success; it was the hit of the [Edinburgh] Fringe. Some time later I received a call to tell me it was going on a tour to the States, and it was recasting. At that stage, without knowing any more about the play, I knew I wanted to be in it, and knew I should be in it. And, I don’t often get that strong a feeling about a play or a show.

MN: So it was it an intuitive decision to join, then?

JF: It was. And, well, it was as much about being a son of a Black Watch, as it was about being an actor.

MN: Tell me about your personal history with the Scottish battalion.

JF: My dad was in the Black Watch and he joined as a young man in the Second World War, and his father, my grandfather, joined the Black Watch in the early years of the twentieth century. He ended up commanding the Black Watch at the age of 33. He had this reputation for having a charmed life; which was to do with his surname too. He commanded the First Battalion for something like 16 months on the front line.

MN: So this figure of your grandfather would have been a source of pride, but also a measuring stick for you all, in some sense?

JF: Absolutely. My dad did feel I think that he had something to live up to.

MN: In the play there’s a sense that the dignity and pride of the Black Watch, which has lasted for so long, was severely questioned by the posting in Iraq, and by the amalgamation with other Scottish battalions. (The Black Watch was merged with other battalions in March 2006, to create the Royal Regiment of Scotland). Is that your experience, and has it impacted on your family?

JF: It [the amalgamation] certainly was handled very badly by the government. They could have had handled it better, and it probably would have caused less uproar. And, I think most serving soldiers knew that it had to happen – but, not at the expense of the sense of tradition which draws men to the colours, and holds the regiment and unit together. I have to say that I was very very, sorry that it happened, I mean to me it is so much part of my heritage. It’s about being Scottish to me, being part of the Black Watch family is part of my being Scottish.

MN: How does the play deal with the amalgamation?

JF: There’s a scene where my character, the Officer, is reciting an email home to his wife – it’s the middle email. It’s saying that ‘hey listen, we’ve got to go forward,’ it’s about the men serving there [in Iraq], and we’ve just got to move on.

MN: These are the speeches that you’re reciting from atop the cargo hold?

JF: The speeches, yes, they are meant to be emails, emails to his wife. Which is a fiction that… most people accept as a convention, because no man in his right mind would write emails to his wife like that. But I think that the point is, each one starts with ‘My Darling’ so that you know that it’s a letter home rather than a briefing to the troops or something. So it’s a convention, and a necessary convention.

MN: Can you tell me about your own personal, political views with regards to the war?

JF: (pause) I’m quite schizophrenic because I’ve marched against the war. I thought it was a major folly, a tragic folly. But I’m from an army background, and although I learnt to question many aspects of the military world as I grew up, I also have a very strong sense of loyalty towards it too. And that doesn’t trouble me – I don’t find that contradictory. Part of me always wonders what would have happened if I had actually joined the Black Watch, which until I was about 17 was on the cards. I was pretty sure it was a good idea not to join at the time, and now I’m absolutely sure it’s a good thing I didn’t join.

MN: Have those views progressed or changed since you’ve been involved in the play?

JF: I don’t think so.

MN: The way that it stands now, what are your ideas about the resolution of the Iraq war?

JF: In terms of the way out, I couldn’t say. I don’t know enough. But I did feel that once the mistake had been made, we were stuck with it. I think the only honourable thing to do, even though this thing was done in our name – which personally, I do not agree with – once we dismantled that country, we had to stick around. Not only as a matter of honour and as a matter of trust to the people whose lives we’ve fucked up (as the play so eloquently puts it), but also in terms of world security. I mean you can’t walk away and say “Oops! Mistake. Sorry, sorry.” You can’t do that; you can’t say sorry when you’ve made a major, major error like that.

“There is a lot of bad language. I think people find the swearing… I think, and this isn’t deliberate, I think it generates a tension in the audience. Which is kind of equivalent to what it feels like to be in a camp that’s being mortared. And then somehow, as the audience weathers it – those that do weather it, and I think the majority of them do as they get to know the characters more – they stop hearing it. That’s my impression. And then they actually began to feel complicit.”

MN: You talked about interesting cultural reactions when the play was touring in the States. How have you found it here in New Zealand?

JF: Well I’ll be honest with you. People seem to be taking it as a piece of theatre, rather than as a piece of political theatre – it’s almost like the political side is taken for granted. You used the word ‘spectacle’ earlier. And it seems to me, that that is how it’s being taken. People don’t want to talk about the play particularly, for better or worse. What would be interesting would be if people wanted to talk about it because they actually disagreed with it. No one has come up and said “Listen, that’s just so wrong”.

MN: What kinds of questions do people ask?

JF: I’ve only had people make comments about its effectiveness as a piece of theatre, or whether it went well that night, or how shit the audibility was, or whatever. It’s interesting because the closest we get to discussion in that area is people saying ‘well, how do you deal with that kind of intensity of material every night?’ And everyone just says ‘It’s not a problem, it’s not a problem, we go and have a drink.’ Because if anything, maybe the parade sequence is a kind of act of catharsis for everybody.

MN: So the parade scene kind of cleanses you of your emotional engagement?

JF: It’s great, we’re out of character, we haven’t got any lines, and it is a sort of act of catharsis. And no one lives with their character, or lives with the tragedy, because… scene by scene the play doesn’t engage that profoundly with the subject. I don’t think it’s meant to. The guys out in Iraq, the guys in the pub scene, they don’t… deal with it, except right at the very end when there’s the scene with the writer, and they actually start talking a bit more about it. It’s almost about not dealing with the material, as that’s what soldiers do, they keep it in.

MN: So in a way, you have had to look for other ways to make the play emotionally expressive, as you mentioned at the beginning. Such as in the ‘letters from home’ scene, where actors describe the contents of their letters with their hands – almost like sign language. Personally I loved that scene. I found it very affecting.

JF: I was really dreading the scene at first. I thought ‘I’m not that imaginative, I’m not that physical an actor.’ That was the part of taking on the role that worried me the most – apart from singing on my own, which I hadn’t done for a long time. And then finally when it was explained to me what was happening, it was so simple, it was a huge relief – because I realised I wasn’t going to have to improvise with my hands for five minutes. Shall I tell you what it was?

MN: Sure.

JF: We were all told to write a letter to ourselves, that we imagined had come from home, and told not to show it to anyone else – it was our private little thing. And then we had to choose three sentences, and simply find a physical representation of what we were reading.

MN: And that’s how you devised your movements?

JF: Yep, the idea is that you drop your letter, and then you loop the movements over and over until it’s your turn to leave the stage. John and Steven [the associate director] would tell us to make it longer and so on, but they wouldn’t change it.

MN: Did you undergo much dance training for the piece?

JF: No. Some people have more dance-like stuff than I do obviously; the only dance I have is the simple Scottish highland dance, which I knew from childhood. I’m used to doing it in shoes that fit better, it’s true, but I’m not carrying a four foot sword. We have a very rigorous physical regime, which was devised by Steven, who is a formidable and fantastic movement director. He is like a guru really; he’s just a fantastic teacher and leader. So we warm up for 45 minutes everyday, alternating with Yoga, Pilates and all sorts of stuff.

MN: There’s a lot of swearing in the play.

JF: There is a lot of bad language. I think people find the swearing… I think, and this isn’t deliberate, I think it generates a tension in the audience. Which is kind of equivalent to what it feels like to be in a camp that’s being mortared. And then somehow, as the audience weathers it – those that do weather it, and I think the majority of them do as they get to know the characters more – they stop hearing it. That’s my impression. And then they actually began to feel complicit. And so then by the end of the show, when Stewarty turns to Macca and says “Aw you fat cunt!” and there’s this roar of laughter you think: they’ve bought it, they’re okay with it now. I think it generates a kind of complicity. I offer that as a theory. That’s my ex-drama student theory.

MN: I was kind of struck with a sense of bewilderment that this play is a response of Western culture to what is happening in Iraq. I think it’s so interesting that one part of our many ways of dealing with the war is to recreate scenes from it and try to emotionally engage with it on a more personal level, through theatre – all while this is still going on in Iraq. It’s a strange kind of meta-image, in a way.

JF: Does that trouble you? Was there a kind of dissonance? Did you think ‘Is this all we can come with?’”

MN: Not so much a dissonance, but more a feeling that ‘what does this mean to people who are there now?’

JF: Yes, well I hesitate to use the word ‘parochial,’ but this was devised by the National Theatre of Scotland, in its first year of existence, choosing a Scottish subject, touching on what we tend to call the ‘Shortbread Tin’ aspect of Scotland – you know, highland regiments, bagpipes – and then subverting it. There’s a focus on something very close to Scottish peoples’ hearts. So, really, I think one has to remember the nature of the show’s origins.