As Dundee Rep stages John McGrath’s famous play The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil, Mark Brown considers the drama’s place in Scottish theatre history
When Dundee Rep theatre announced its autumn programme, there was considerable excitement that the Tayside playhouse would be opening the season with a production of John McGrath’s famous 1973 play The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil. Written for McGrath’s own, socialist company 7:84 Scotland, this politico-historical work of ceilidh theatre came to be seen by many as the most important Scottish play ever staged.
It traces Scotland’s turbulent political history, from the Highland Clearances to the discovery of North Sea Oil. More than most stage works, The Cheviot seems to epitomise the cliched notion of “a play of its time”. Yet, like the socialist radicalism of Jeremy Corbyn, it seems set for a resurgence.
There are, of course, those who dissent from the idea that The Cheviot marks the pinnacle of Scottish theatrical achievement. Some say that Sir David Lyndsay’s 16th-century drama Ane Satyre Of The Thrie Estaitis is Scotland’s greatest play.
Others that John Tiffany’s production of Gregory Burke’s Iraq War piece Black Watch has superseded McGrath’s opus. Other sensitive souls, myself included, place the poetics of David Harrower’s Knives In Hens and Zinnie Harris’s Further Than The Furthest Thing above the rest of the Caledonian canon.
One thing is certain, however, The Cheviot is an iconic play in modern Scottish theatre history; and, let’s face it, thanks to the prohibitions of our Calvinist Reformation, we have very little theatrical history to speak of prior to the 20th and 21st centuries.
Indeed, McGrath, who hailed from Merseyside, recognised the relative absence of a Scottish theatre history. The Cheviot draws instead upon the country’s distinctive musical and variety performance traditions. Fuelled by live music, irreverent, satirical comedy and audience participation, the play exemplifies McGrath’s insistence that even the most political play should offer “a good night out”.
Interestingly, there are parallels between The Cheviot and, some say its natural successor, Black Watch. Both address the major political questions of their time; albeit that Black Watch is more narrowly focused on the Iraq War.
Both, crucially, speak in a Scottish working-class vernacular, while drawing upon Scottish musical tradition; the unaccompanied Gaelic song used in Black Watch during the scene in which we see Scottish soldiers blasted by an improvised explosive device still sends shivers down the spine.
There is a more direct connection, too. It is impossible to imagine the satirical scene in Black Watch, in which Lord Elgin recruits young Fifers for the “Great War”, without the army recruitment scene from The Cheviot, in which The Duke of Sutherland, his fortune made by the Clearances, is told by a bolshie Highlander: “since you have preferred sheep to men, let sheep now defend you.”
There is no question that the original 7:84 Cheviot in 1973 fulfilled McGrath’s ambition, a sort of socialist Reithianism, to inform and entertain. Every photograph from the time shows enraptured audiences singing and laughing along with the ensemble.
It is just such a connection with the audience that director Joe Douglas (who re-directed the 2013 world tour of Black Watch) and his cast will be seeking to achieve with this new production. Much has changed since 1973, not least the loss of much of Scotland’s heavy industry.
The trick for the Dundee Rep ensemble (Scotland’s only permanent troupe of actors, which includes fine actors such as Irene Macdougall and recent addition Billy Mack) will be to try capture some of the energy of the original staging, whilst bringing the politics of the piece into the present day.
Goodness knows, from last year’s independence referendum, to land reform, disputes over the quantity of oil left in the North Sea and the election of a Tory government at Westminster, there is no shortage of political material for an updated Cheviot. The danger of failing to update McGrath’s script is that a play that was created to speak to its political times ends up looking like a mere museum piece.
Such, in fact, was the opinion of then 7:84 artistic director David Hayman when Wildcat theatre company staged the play in 1991. As McGrath wrote later, Hayman thought the Wildcat production, which was directed by John Bett (a member of 7:84’s Cheviot company in the Seventies), was a “re-hash” of the original.
Indeed, Hayman criticised Bett’s staging for what he perceived to be its crudely polemical approach to the play. It was ruined, he said, by “the red mallet of ideology”.
However, as McGrath noted, with considerable pleasure, “the public thought otherwise”. The Wildcat production was a box office success in Clydebank, Glasgow and the Edinburgh Fringe.
Why, McGrath wondered, with so much great international theatre on offer during the Edinburgh Festival, were audiences packing out the circus tent on The Meadows to see a socialist play from the Seventies? The answer, he suggested, was that: “People love the comedy, the music, the variety, but particularly they love the fact that it is saying something about Scotland today, something direct and passionate.”
That, then, is the task ahead of this new production. To honour one of the most important plays in the history of Scottish theatre, not by recreating famous productions of times past, but by staying true to its commitment to speak to the politics and culture of Scotland in the here and now.
The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil runs at Dundee Rep until September 26. For further information, visit: dundeerep.co.uk
This preview was originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 13, 2015
© Mark Brown