The ghosts of war are never silenced for the men of the "Black Watch." The spirits of the dead whisper forever in the ears of these battle-scarred soldiers.

From a dingy pool room in Fife to an armored tank in Iraq, this haunting drama transports us to the front lines of the war in the Middle East. Based on interviews with members of the legendary Scottish regiment known as The Black Watch, this critically acclaimed National Theatre of Scotland production has been hailed as a landmark theatrical event that exposes the human face of the war on terror.

"It was a privilege and a deep, deep honor to tell this story," says director John Tiffany, who won the Tony Award for the acclaimed Broadway musical "Once." "One mother of a boy who died in Iraq thanked me for giving her son back for a few hours. It was very moving."

The cast of Black Watchóplaying in the Drill Court at San Franciscoís Mission Armory, May 3ñJune 9, 2013. Photo by Scott Suchman.
The cast of Black Watchóplaying in the Drill Court at San Franciscoís Mission Armory, May 3ñJune 9, 2013. Photo by Scott Suchman. ( Scott Suchman )

Part lamentation for the dead, part tribute to the bravery of the military, "Black Watch" ties the soldiers on the ground today with the legacy of their ancestors. It's a devastating tour of duty that connects the past and the present, the living and the dead.

"When I saw 'Black Watch' at St. Anne's in Brooklyn, I was knocked out by its audacity, its theatricality and the huge imagination of John Tiffany's vision," says Carey Perloff, director of ACT, which is presenting the groundbreaking work through June 16 in the Drill Court at San Francisco's Armory.

"Black Watch" has its bones in the gritty realism of documentary theater, but it also pushes the audience to confront the ghastly theatricality of warfare. This harrowing two-hour drama makes the realm of the subconscious, the nightmare world of post-traumatic stress disorder that haunts so many veterans, palpable for the audience. We don't just hear about the way the war torments these soldiers, we feel it. For a few hours, we live it.

"It's not until the first body pushes itself out of the pool table, a few minutes into the show, that you begin to grasp just how thrilling -- and how disturbing -- 'Black Watch' is going to be," noted the New York Times. "Abstract memories of the dead have become an undeniable physical reality. And you know that for these men, these bodies are always there, in the pub, in the pool table, in whatever place they happen to be."

A long history

The Black Watch unit has been lauded for its valor for 300 years. The storied battalion, which was first raised in the wake of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion, is steeped in lore. Festooned with their distinctive dark tartan and green Tam o' Shanter caps, these banded brothers have fought throughout the ages, from Waterloo and the American Revolution to Fallujah.

"What's unique about The Black Watch is how tribal they are. One generation after another joins the battalion," Tiffany says. "We wanted to capture the pride of the regiment, the golden thread that connects the soldiers all the way back to the Highlands. There is a long history of The Black Watch being at the forefront of British military action."

Bombs fall, and gunfire erupts all around them, so the lads maintain their sanity by indulging in gallows humor, playing cards and watching porn. Says Tiffany: "A lot of plays have been written about Iraq, but we wanted to tell the story through the eyes of the soldiers, to let the audience see what they see."

Looking through that lens turned out to be a shattering experience for the director.

"In the U.K, there had been a lot of animosity toward not just the military, but the soldiers," says Tiffany, "but what I found is that the soldiers had been betrayed as much as anyone, if not more. They didn't have proper training or equipment, but they were sent off to the Triangle of Death to lose their lives. It's a terrible waste."

Music and movement, from the piercing wail of the bagpipes to the drumbeat of marching feet (choreography by Steven Hoggett), were the keys to unlocking the dark narrative of this famed squadron.

"I wanted the audience to get inside the minds of the soldiers, which is hard, because the language they use is often abrasive. There's a lot of cursing and violence. They talk the way they must to cope with being mortared and bombarded," says Tiffany, "so the movement and the music let us get beyond the words. It lets us see that these are just boys."

A band of brothers

The desire to do one's patriotic duty is part of the choice to enlist in The Black Watch, but Tiffany says it's really the yearning for brotherhood that binds these young men together.

"A lot of the soldiers did not have fathers in their lives, so the sergeant became the father," he said.

Setting the piece in the armory, with stadium-style seating, helps frame the play in the context of military history. It's as if this grandiose building is its own monument to the fallen.

"The haunting marches and visceral choreography will truly explode in that space. And because it's actually a real drill hall, it gives the piece added meaning," says Perloff. "That's the beauty of site-specific work."

"You can smell the history in the room," Tiffany says. "You can sense the generations of soldiers who were drilled there and sent off to kill and be killed abroad."

Shared responsibility

While the director doesn't want the play to be seen as a piece of anti-war rhetoric, he does want to engage the audience so deeply that we realize that all of us in the audience have played a part in this drama as well. The message is urgent: If "Black Watch" is a tragedy, it is one we all share.

"One thing that struck me is how unpolitical these soldiers are," notes Tiffany. "You think that people who go off to war must be fighting for something they believe in. But these were just lads, doing what they were told."

A moment passes before he adds: "It's our responsibility that they are there. We made the choices that put them there."

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza, follow her at Twitter.com/karendsouza4 and like her at Facebook.com/dsouzatheaterpage.

'THE BLACK WATCH'

Written by Gregory Burke, directed by John Tiffany

Through: June 16
Where: Armory Community Center, 333 14th St., San Francisco
Tickets: $100; 415-749-2228, www.act-sf.org