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The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil

Michael Cox writes about the seminal play and the current touring production from Dundee Rep.

I first encountered John McGrath not in the theatre but in a library. I’d been a performing arts lecturer for two years and was looking for new plays to use in class. As an American, my knowledge of US theatre was excellent, and I was pretty well versed with English drama. Scottish theatre? Not so much—a fact I wanted to change.

And it wasn’t even Cheviot that would first impress me but a later work: Blood Red Roses. I immediately fell in love, not just with its characters and plot but with its tenacity—it was angry, opinionated and unashamedly political. I adored it, perhaps much more than my students.

But that play took me down a rabbit hole. I read other plays by McGrath and even located a dusty copy of A Good Night Out in the Glasgow University library. Most importantly I began speaking with people; people I had known for years who seemed utterly shocked at my ignorance of 7:84 Theatre Company and its exploits. Everyone had stories—being inspired as audience members and war stories from shows they had worked on.

When I began working in arts journalism I’d happily take advantage of 7:84 divergences in interviews with people. I relished these tales, even if most of them didn’t make copy.

Of course, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil came up frequently. Over time I spoke with numerous people and heard countless tales; stories from the audience, the stage and behind the scenes. I’d heard so much about this seminal production that when I finally sat down to read the script I pretty much knew it beat for beat. However, unlike some of McGrath’s other plays it didn’t read as well to me. Staged readings and scene work in class with students, along with watching the film, allowed me to glimpse its dramatic heartbeat. But I didn’t have the opportunity to fully appreciate it as a dramatic whole…until last Wednesday.

I had missed Dundee Rep’s restaging last year for a few reasons, chief among them that it had sold out by the time I’d cleared my schedule. The word of mouth was mostly excellent from audiences and my critical colleagues alike, and I was sorry to have not had the opportunity to see it. So it was with selfish delight that I walked into the Royal Lyceum for its tour, one year after the fact.

And while I enjoyed the experience, it’s a difficult production to review, mainly for the fact that it is such a haunted play. The legacy of that initial production and of 7:84 cannot be denied, and romantic nostalgia is an easy trap to fall into. As a play, Cheviot likes to both ridicule and glorify Scotland’s past, and while it is constantly political it is a one-sided affair. The fact that it is in itself a part of Scottish nationalistic nostalgia is surely an unintended irony, even if its politics are more mainstream now than before.

The primary question at hand here is simple: is Joe Douglas’ current production successful or not? In short, the answer is yes. Every aspect is sharp: direction, design and performance alike. Many moments and performances stand out, and it has a good balance of pathos and humour.

But to give a more honest assessment as to whether this is a production that will connect with audiences or not, one must turn the question around and ask: where does the audience stand? This is a divisive production, and audiences will surely get out of it what they bring to the theatre. Those who voted Yes to independence two years ago will see a completely different production to those who not only voted No Thanks but also tire of the debate’s continued existence.

On the night I saw it, I had as much drama going on around me as I saw on stage. To one side of me sat a woman who became physically agitated every time Gaelic was used—she felt alienated in not having translation, to the point she threw her hands up in frustrating at the end of the play when a Gaelic song is used for a final point. And yet, near me on the other side sat actor John Bett: an original cast member whose gleeful smile and bright eyes beamed throughout. I could have easily watched him all night (from the corner of my eye, I did). And while the group of conservatively dressed people who sat behind me audibly tutted their way throughout the evening, the production also earned much laughter and applause, receiving a standing ovation from most of the audience.

As for myself, I believe it is a mostly successful production. The play still works, though its success depends not on actors being convincing in each character but in its entire ensemble being a politically astute whole. Douglas’ company mostly achieves this, though some are much more convincing than others, primarily Irene Macdougall and Billy Mack. Each actor is given much to do: perform multiple roles, play music, move scenery and read out text to make historic points.

This production has also been modified from the original. The piece was originally a small touring show, playing in town halls and community centres. While Douglas’ production works in a theatre setting, its sense of community is dwarfed in an actual theatre space, which is a shame. The text has also been tinkered with, primarily in the ‘Black Oil’ section of the second half, adding modern history and figures to the mix.

Which of course brings forth the one big question that must be asked: why this play now? Cheviot was of its time. Important as it was, much has happened between 1973 and now, politically and artistically. Surely what we are in need of is not a new production of this but a continued tale in the spirit of the original. Will this generate that spark of creativity in the next generation as the first production did in its time? Only time will tell. All I know is this: as much as I like seeing Sellar and Loch singing about ‘High Industry’ to justify the Highland Clearances, I sincerely hope to see a new take on Scotland’s historic past and political future in 40 years time rather than another fresh take on this play.

Today we have this: a well-executed production that will thrill those whose hearts are in agreement and annoy those who aren’t. I suppose for now, that’s enough.

The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil tours Scotland until October 22.

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