Review: The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil




Review by Mark Brown

In 1973, the socialist theatre company 7:84 Scotland toured a play by its founder and artistic director, the late John McGrath. Entitled The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, it was so successful that it was hailed by many as the most important Scottish play ever staged.

The piece is a combination of historical narration, verbatim drama, music hall comedy, political polemic and, crucially, ceilidh (Scotland’s still thriving tradition of social gatherings involving live music and dancing). It tells the story of the Highlands of Scotland, from the brutality of the Highland Clearances to the controversies of oil exploration in the 1960s.

McGrath famously said that even the most avowedly political theatre should provide audiences with “a good night out”. Few doubt that the legendary success of his 1973 production was down, in almost equal measure, to the engaging style of its performance and its capturing of the Scottish political mood.

Dundee Rep’s revival of the play in 2015 is intriguing. One assumes that the theatre’s management reckoned that the political atmosphere in Scotland today, with its surge in support for the unambiguously left-of-centre Scottish Nationalists, is similar to that of 1973. If the standing ovation given to the production following Friday’s press night performance is anything to go by, they may well be right.

Which is not to say that director Joe Douglas relies on political sentiment alone. His Cheviot, which boasts wonderful live music by actor-musician Alasdair Macrae and his band, is certainly a good night out.

The Rep ensemble, for their part, play McGrath’s script with admirable gusto. Like a troupe of music hall Marxists, they lament the victims of the Clearances, lampoon the grouse-shooting landowners and deride the American money men who profited from Britain’s North Sea oil.

What they don’t do, however, is make the play particularly topical. There are a few nods to recent political events, but nothing of real substance. For instance, a skit in which a beach ready David Cameron is represented as a member of a “mega-rich shooting party” will cause the Prime Minister less embarrassment than his own ill-considered joke about the people of Yorkshire.

Nevertheless, despite its moments of soap box rhetoric and its relative lack of up-to-date material, this production will be remembered for its vitality, satirical humour and genuine pathos.

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© Mark Brown


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