Writer: John McGrath
Director: Joe Douglas
Reviewer: Gareth Davies
Forty years after changing Scottish theatre forever (as the programme helpfully reminds us, multiple times) the themes of this free-wheeling musical drama about the continued exploitation of the Scottish Highlands, and its people, still have the capacity to pack a powerful political punch.
Scattered statistics intersperse with satirical characterisations of some of the figures who masterminded the clearances of Scottish crofting communities from their Highland settlements in the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries – and there’s no doubting the horror in the means, motivations and depths of impact these momentous actions had. The entire island of Rum, we’re informed, was forcibly cleared of its 400 inhabitants for the sake of 8,000 sheep (the Cheviot of the title), and later attempts to capitalise on the land and its resources for hunting parties and for the extraction of oil were no less destructive to Highland communities and culture.
But it wasn’t simply for its content that The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil became a prototype of John McGrath’s ‘good night out’; the original production was toured around the Highland towns and villages themselves, and performed in situ, as it were, for the communities whose lives and history were most directly impacted by the events it related.
This form of taking theatre to the people was a major part of the production’s revolutionary appeal, and one palpable problem with Dundee Rep’s revival – now touring to major venues like Edinburgh’s Lyceum – is partly its setting, in major venues, like Edinburgh’s Lyceum.
There is something inherently jarring about seeing a play that spoke so fundamentally to the communities shaped by the events it depicted, being staged for an audience of Lyceum subscribers seeking their own rarefied experience of a good night out. That may be one reason why, for the first half at least, the audience seems a little sheepish (pun intended) at engaging fully with the unconventional staging of this seminal play.
The other, more major issue, is that whereas in 1973 the production capitalised on the political spirit of the time, the 2015 production strays dangerously close to the worst kind of ‘theatre of nostalgia’ of which Scottish cultural output is occasionally guilty.
That the play’s fundamental message continues to carry a raw political urgency in these times of post-Indyref, post-Brexit, pre-fracking trumpery (and, indeed, Trumpery) makes its tone and style more jarring. The up-to-date statistics on land ownership in the programme highlight how relevant this play still is to Scottish politics and industry, so it is no surprise that one of the warmest audience responses of the evening comes at the start of the second half, as the company cast a spotlight on more contemporary issues and figures.
The ensemble cast brings gusto in bucketloads to this conveyor belt of characters, songs and sketches. Irene Macdougall and Billy Mack form a solid central axis around which the cast of musicians and actors whirl and the energy from the stage is undeniable. But it’s hard to shake a sense that a fresh production, in the footprints of 7:84’s original operation and focusing on the continued political bending of Scottish culture and landscape to modern day business ventures, might have yielded more than this spirited but flawed revival, which seems a little disconnected from its own time and space.
Runs until 24 September 2016 | Image: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan