The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil / credit: Tommy Ga Ken Wan
Three varying approaches to the political on stage
In much contemporary criticism, the influence of Bertolt Brecht is frequently described as a series of formal innovations – the breaking of the 'fourth wall' through direct addresses to the audience and the manipulation of the 'alienation-effect' to remind audiences that the events on display are not inevitable but merely a playing-out of a script that is weighted with ideological assumptions.
But Brecht's dramaturgy was informed by a determined Marxism and a belief in the political potential of theatre, and the growth of agit-prop performance – and the leftist sentiment in much of 21st century theatre – owes much to his explicit statements of intent. Both Brexit Means Brexit and The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil inherit Brecht's sensibility: Brexit concludes with a discussion between the performers and the audience (all seated in a circle and debating the experience of the past few years), while the rough-hewn script of Cheviot combines music, dance and polemical speech to disrupt the easy display of ideas and recalls Brecht's willingness to switch genre and style to pursue a more immediate engagement with both audience and the social context.
21 Pornographies (★★★★☆) is an outlier: considering it as a political choreography ignores its preoccupation with visual brilliance, its fascination with the potential of juxtaposing movement and monologue, and drags its discussion of sexual violence and exploitation into a distinct context. Yet, unlike Brexit and Cheviot, it speaks to a contemporary politics of identity and sexual desire, avoiding the specific politics of election and corporate power for a psychedelic exploration of how pornography and violence are intimately connected, and how sexual domination is a subtle analogy to broader power structures.
The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil (★★★☆☆) is one of Scotland's most iconic plays: although rarely revived, the 1973 production by 7:84 incorporated traditional ceilidh music and aesthetics to press home a strong argument against the continued exploitation of Scotland's natural resources for the benefit of the wealthy minority. John McGrath's script remains timely: its challenges to the business bias of the SNP, the remote power of Westminster, the arrival of North American oil-barons (memorably caricatured by Alisdair Macrae as a rooting-tooting violinist) and the environmental cost of capitalism are painfully relevant, even as the addition of more contemporary deceptions reveals that the game is still being played with the population of 'North Britain'. Joe Douglas' direction manages to balance a reverence for the spirit of the 1973 production, remaining loose and spontaneous, playful and intense by turns, with a modern sensibility, establishing both the importance of the original script and its continued relevance.
Brexit Means Brexit
Brexit Means Brexit (★★☆☆☆), however, addresses the dominant topic of the current news cycle through a combination of contemporary dance and an extended post-show discussion. While including actual debate within the time of the performance is an intelligent and inspiring move, the discussion sadly emphasised how little light exists within the entire Brexit debate. When one audience member advocated for Leave, the shock was palpable, and the arguments reiterated the patterns found on Facebook, discussion forums and beneath online articles. That contemporary dance, as a medium for exploring ideas, is often abstract and provocative rather than precise and clear, only emphasised how intractable and repetitive questions about the departure from the EU have become. And the video interlude, showing 'highlights' from various debates, only exposes how utter garbage has replaced serious thought. Brexit Means Brexit, sadly, reveals how dismal and contorted political discourse has become without engaging, in the manner of Cheviot, either the underlying pressures or the cold facts of the situation.
21 Pornographies, meanwhile, moves from a recitation of De Sade's 120 Days of Sodom towards an impressionistic spectacle that connects pornographic representation, especially of the female body, with acts of horrific violence. De Sade's problematic status as a champion of sexual liberty – his erotic texts has been variously interpreted as a prediction of the efficient murder-machines of twentieth century dictators in their description of sexual variations, an expose of the oppression of women and a reflection of the French monarchy's aristocratic perversions – rapidly descends into horror through quick-fire edits of scenes culled from diverse sources. Mette Ingvartsen's naked body becomes a symbol, simultaneously of innocence and exploitation, and her stories build towards an allusive sequence that ultimately reduces her to a hostage, head covered and rotating around a single pole of light. It is harsh, but takes a similar didactic intention to Cheviot and aims not to raise consciousness but undermine and expand it.
Each of these productions explore a political question, but in radically different ways: Brexit aims to give a space for conversation, and largely struggles due to the inherent mess of the subject; Cheviot gives the facts in an entertaining and playful format that is ultimately at its most powerful in the final act, when it directly appeals for political action; 21 Pornographies is a mind-bending repositioning of the impact and uses of erotic art. The challenge that they all face is how theatre itself can reach beyond the immediate experience and effect change, and this is where the psychedelia of Mette Ingvartsen's 21 Pornographies is most powerful, dealing in representation and offering a way of interpreting pornography that goes beyond the spectacle into a worrying and intense experience. For its excellent cast, dynamic energy and determined honesty, Cheviot has an aura of respectability, a visit to the classic script that ironically strips it of some impact.
The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil is currently touring Scotland.
John McGrath's 1973 play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil is one of the landmarks in Scottish theatre. It tells the story of economic change in the Scottish highlands and it challenges its audience to rethink the stories they had been told about their own history.