The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil
Review by Mark Brown
John McGrath’s celebrated drama The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black Black Oil was first staged, with extraordinary success, by 7:84 Theatre Company in 1973 (the production was then made into a hugely popular TV film for the BBC in 1974). It is what I call a “play-production”. That is to say, a theatre piece which is not complete on the page, but owes its fame at least as much to its original staging as to its written text.
It’s a brave director who attempts to revive such a totemic work. Director Joe Douglas did so a year ago at Dundee Rep, to considerable critical acclaim. Now he’s taking this, slightly altered, version of that production on the road.
The Cheviot, famously, tells the stories of the Highland Clearances, land ownership in the Highlands and the development of the North Sea oil industry. Its attraction, now as then, lies in its being a work of “ceilidh-theatre” which combines popular Gaelic music and dance with music hall comedy and satire.
The piece is better suited to a Highland village hall (or, for that matter, a city dance hall) than a traditional theatre auditorium. Douglas’s production recognises this and gets the performers off the stage and among the audience on a regular basis.
The Cheviot wouldn’t be The Cheviot without live music, and the Rep was fortunate indeed to secure the services of the extraordinary musical director, fiddler and actor Alasdair Macrae. With Macrae at the helm the music plays a fantastically theatrical role, giving the piece momentum, not least at the points where McGrath’s passionately held socialism begins to slip into editorialising.
The play’s accounts of episodes from the Clearances (the burning of a croft with an old woman still inside; police violence against women crofters who resisted eviction) remain heartbreaking and enraging. In the drama’s second half, Douglas has a trickier task, in terms of balancing McGrath’s script with the need for his production to feel politically current.
Last year’s Rep staging slipped a little in this area. The 2016 version is notably improved. Not only do fine actors Ewan Donald and Barrie Hunter enhance the cast, but the new satirical material is much stronger; in particular, the hilarious skit in which Hunter plays Donald Trump, with Mexican backing musicians.
The performances are universally excellent. Billy Mack is a suitably odious Patrick Sellar (the factor who cleared Sutherland with despicable enthusiasm), while the ever-superb Irene Macdougall is the very image of snobbery and oppression as James Loch (commissioner to the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland).
The enduring political power of the original play is underlined by the song We Are The Monarchs Of The Glen, a grimly comic ditty about the continued dominance of Highland land ownership by a rich elite. Performing in front of the huge print of Edwin Landseer’s famous painting of a Highland stag (which dominates Graham McLaren’s smartly utilitarian set), Emily Winter and Stephen Bangs deliver the song with sinister gusto.
7:84 were an openly and avowedly socialist company. Their 1973 tour of The Cheviot reeked of political commitment.
The risk in reviving the play with an established company, such as the Dundee Rep Ensemble, is that such dedication is lacking. It’s to the great credit of Douglas and his cast that this touring production, which received a deserved standing ovation on opening night, feels both heartfelt and of the moment.
At Dundee Rep until September 10, then touring until October 22. For tour details, visit: cheviottour.co.uk
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 4, 2016
© Mark Brown