Photo: Manuel Harlan

The new cast of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch have a tremendous weight of responsibility to bear on their, predominantly young, shoulders.

Not only are they taking on a play, first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006, that has toured the world and won countless awards and critical acclaim, but there is also the small issue of the subject matter to contend with – telling the story of the politically sensitive amalgamation of the Scottish regiments alongside a thoroughly human look at the lives of the armed forces and their journey between a pool room in Fife to the ‘Triangle of Death’ in Iraq. The expectation, pressure and practical demand of such a play is considerable, not least from a primarily young cast of actors, some of whom have not yet graduated from drama school, and others who have never actually acted before.

Not that any of this seems to faze Jamie Quinn and Scott Fletcher, who play young soldiers Fraz and Kenzie – at first all swagger and swearing, but ultimately whose fragile humanity is central to the play’s strength. “The responsibility for us was to keep the standard up, because the last cast were obviously fantastic”, says Fletcher, whose own brother played Kenzie in the previous cast (and who was banned by the director John Tiffany from watching the DVD so that the role he created was entirely his own). Both Fletcher and Quinn say that although the structure of the play went largely unchanged in this staging, because “there’s no point changing something that works”, it is important that the new cast have still made the play their own.

Far from being daunted by their predecessors’ success, Fletcher feels it is nice not to have the worry about how well the play will be received. “I don’t think they knew what they had when they first performed it at the Festival. I think the success came gradually to them, and they were still realising that when they finished the last tour, how big it was and how good it was. It’s nice for us to come in already knowing it. If you take away the subject matter, to be in a show that’s this successful before you’re in it is a great thing for an actor. But then you’ve also got the added thing that you’re telling a massive story. It’s already history!”

It is not just history – it is a highly controversial, continuingly relevant period of history, that is also people’s recent experience and day-to-day lives. In the play attitudes to the war and decisions being made at home are discussed by superiors; however it is done in such a way that it is divorced from the men on the ground, who seem unaware of the context in which they work and are far more concerned with their stash of porn and what they want for dinner when they get back home. As far as Quinn is concerned, his role as an actor is not to get bogged down in the politics of the play, but simply to approach his character as he would do any other – get to the heart of the human story and portray it as truthfully as possible. “When I started the process, what attracted me wasn’t the politics, it was more about the actual soldiers, the actual relationships, and the actual human beings. These guys don’t know about the politics, they’re just doing it because it’s their job. So that was my way in. I was more interested in the actual man and not the world around him.”

There is a clear tension in the piece between those that have been on the front line and the civilians back home who are unable to understand the true horror of war. The audience are challenged from the start with an aggressive monologue, which ridicules attitudes to soldiers as young men who simply have nothing better to do, while the symbol of the well-meaning but ultimately clueless outsider is embodied throughout the play by the journalist, who tries in vain to break through the tough shell of the soldiers. It seems that this crucial gulf between soldiers and civilians must have been hard for the actors themselves to overcome. “I still don’t understand it”, Fletcher says, “how you can come back from Iraq, or anywhere in the world, doing that job, and come back to no job and no support, and people who on the whole don’t care.” Quinn agrees: “In a way we never can fathom it, we can only just try and do our best to portray what we think they’re going through. But truly, we can never ever believe that we do, or ever will, know what they go through. In rehearsals it was always a main point that we had to remember we’re just actors, and those guys are the real deal.”

Of course, it is the task of the actor to portray a character or experience that they do not have direct experience of; however, the subject matter of this play means that the responsibility to do so accurately is greater than ever. “We’ve always understood it’s probably more sensitive than other pieces of theatre”, adds Quinn. The play has been performed on a number of occasions for members of the Black Watch and veterans, which is not without its own pressures. “There’s a physical piece in the play where it gets quite dangerous and a guy tried to walk out during that. I tried to stop him, but I didn’t want to because I knew he was a veteran and so he can do what he wants. He told me after ‘It was great, I loved it!’ I asked him why he left and he told me he couldn’t watch it anymore, but it gave him closure”. Although the actors are proud to be involved in a play that is clearly so important, this creates a role that Fletcher is not entirely comfortable with. “I think it’s dangerous that theatre becomes therapy because when you leave the theatre there’s no support. He obviously got that closure from it and it’s a good thing, but I don’t want to have the responsibility of going out and being a therapist – that’s not what it is.”

Fraz (Jamie Quinn) and Kenzie (Scott Fletcher). Photo: Manuel Harlan

For Scotland, the Black Watch is an iconic, historical regiment with stong connections with certain communities, and its significance is captured wonderfully by the play’s fast-paced red carpet display of military regalia, as Cammy details the role the regiment has played in conflicts throughout history. “I think there’s a certain type of person who would be linked to the Black Watch, historically, emotionally or through family, but there’s a great military connection with the working class in Scotland anyway”, says Fletcher. It was the front page debate about amalgamation of the Black Watch with other regiments, while its soldiers were fighting and dying in Iraq, that prompted the NTS to commission the play from writer Greogory Burke in the first place. “On the front page of the paper there was a story about the amalgamation, but on the ninth page there was a story about three of the soldiers in that regiment who had been killed. The NTS saw that and I suppose they thought, where is the perspective, where is the feeling for these soldiers and their humanity?”

As Fletcher recognises the play has “got a military energy stamped on it before we even go on stage” thanks to the setting, which instantly evokes the feel of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. “The audience don’t know what it’s like to be in Iraq, and we don’t know either, so I suppose in Scotland anyway, the staging gives them a sense that this is home.” However, after making them feel comfortable, the play then transports the audience to front line, where the action – and the language – is inescapable. ” I think because we’re so close it becomes quite imposing. We’re this close but they can’t get away so they need to watch it, and if they don’t want to watch they can still hear it.”

Yet for a particularly Scottish play, rooted in a particular historical and social context, it is remarkable that it has been so well received around the world. Quinn admits he had wondered how well Black Watch would work in America, but that it succeeds because “it could be any nationality, any country in the world – these group of guys exist everywhere. The accents would be different, the language would be different, but this is still happening everywhere, so that’s why it is still so universal because everyone understands, regardless of whether you understand the accents.”

It is of crucial importance to the play that the cast are utterly convincing as young, ballsy squaddies and that they capture the camaraderie of men who have been on the front line together. “We’re always encouraged, similar to the army, to look after your man beside you. Not that we’re anything like the army – we’re actors – but we’re always with each other and 100% supportive,” says Quinn. Fletcher thinks that the bond is a product of a number of factors; from the play itself, to who was chosen for the cast, and the rehearsal process itself. “We worked a lot with Steven Hoggett, the movement director. Although you maybe don’t see it in the show, the process to develop the movement is quite tender and you’re working quite closely all the time, so you have to be comfortable with each other.”

The bond between the men has allowed the more experienced members of the cast to help younger and less experienced actors to flourish. Playing Cammy, who acts as spokesperson for the soldiers, exuding calm authority while inescapably boyish and vulnerable, marks the professional stage debut for actor Jack Lowden, who is in his final year at RSAMD. For Cameron Barnes who plays Macca, Black Watch has been a life changing experience, as when the director was unable to find an actor who could play the pipes, he found a piper that could act. “Cameron had never acted before in his life, but I definitely don’t think you can tell. . . He’s become one of us now” says Fletcher.

“I don’t know one young Scottish actor that wouldn’t want to be in this show”, he adds, before admitting that it was seeing Black Watch that made him want to be an actor in the first place. “I’m not from a theatre family. My brother did telly before he went into theatre, so it was the first time I’d properly been to theatre. Jack as well, it was the first piece of theatre he’s ever seen, and he went to drama college straight after that. It’s great that we can now pass that on, being in this position now. You get a lot of Facebook messages saying ‘I’m thinking of going to college and it would be great if you could give me some advice on how you did that’, and that’s lovely, because I sent messages to people like that before I went to drama school.”

Black Watch generally attracts a younger audience, and now that it is on the Scottish Curriculum, Quinn notes that rows of students scribbling in books have become a usual fixture. “It’s great because it is such a young cast and they can relate to it. Sometimes people see a play and it’s some middle aged couple trying to kill each other and you can’t quite relate to it; but if you see a play about a bunch of young guys who speak like you, act like you, who you may have gone to school with, then it’s going to inspire you and open your mind.”

Having inspired this generation of young Scottish actors, Black Watch continues to grow, and with every new audience has the chance to move and motivate others – be they veterans, schoolchildren or Yanks! It is a unique play for these actors to be involved in and although they have to concentrate each night on just doing their job to the best of their ability, the importance of their task has not escaped Quinn: “Sometimes you have to appreciate how lucky you are to be telling a story that resonates with everyone who sees it. That’s the point of theatre really.”

The National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch is at London’s Barbican until the 22nd January.