Preview: The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil
More than forty years after it was first performed, this radical play remains just as relevant in today's political climate
It's only been a year since director Joe Douglas was given the chance to stage his brand new version of the classic Scottish play of the 1970s, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, and if anything, he sees the political landscape shifting to accommodate its presence to an even greater degree this year. In 2015, the Scottish Independence referendum was still fresh in the mind and raw in this text, and it was gleefully made reference to in the staging.
'Now you look at what's happening down south, with Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, and the vote for Brexit,' says Douglas, 'and there's a sense of real hunger for the representative politics which the play speaks of.' Dundee Rep's new production, the first since the early 1990s, was a big hit last autumn, and that it's earned this new national tour is entirely unsurprising.
When it first appeared in 1973, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil was a phenomenon. Touring the major venues and village halls of Scotland, eventually appearing the following year as a BBC Play for Today directed by Edinburgh man John Mackenzie (later director of The Long Good Friday), it was, says Douglas, eventually seen by five percent of the population. Written by Liverpudlian socialist and former Z-Cars writer John McGrath, and edited by writer and cast on a daily basis while on tour, it was a piece which spoke strongly to a Scotland just waking up to its own identity.
Only in the few years previous to The Cheviot's debut had knowledge of the Highland Clearances become public, and the piece fed into many Scots' desire to know more, with a researched historical story presented as a Highland ceilidh with dramatic elements of farce and tragedy applied. It told of the man-made introduction of the Highland sheep (the cheviot and the blackface) to the land, and the forced eviction of the people to make room for this stock; the rise of the Highland landowner, and their love of hunting; and the coming of the Scottish oil industry, then in its infancy.
McGrath's concerns weren't just for Scottish independence, although he was an advocate for it, as well as a socialist; many on the left and even some on the right may find common cause with The Cheviot. It was a play, in fact, which spoke of wider concerns about the effects of capitalism and of globalisation upon the world, and it was the bedrock upon which the 7:84 theatre company (founded by McGrath, his wife Elizabeth MacLennan and her brother David, later founder of Glasgow's A Play, a Pie and A Pint) would base its huge reputation.
'I think quite quickly (after it was decided to create a new version) there was a momentum behind it,' says Douglas. 'The question then was one of scale, of how to do a play which is arguably best seen in a community hall in Fife on a big theatre stage. There are epic moments in there, but myself and (designer) Graham McLaren very early on realised it had to retain the simplicity of the original, of the actor putting on a jacket and pretending to be another character before us. As an audience member, I find that Brechtian sense of honesty very enjoyable.'
He speaks of the play as though it were a gig, as though a certain sense of the unpredictable is expected. 'I don't think it will ever end,' he says of The Cheviot, whether in Dundee Rep's version or some new take forty years from now. 'It's become part of the fabric of the country, certainly of its theatre culture. Hopefully it might one day also be possible to do a smaller-scale version, to take it into community centres and schools, I think that would stay true to the spirit of the thing.'
The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil is at Dundee Rep Theatre until Sat 10 Sep; Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Wed 14--Sat 24 Sep; His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, Tue 4--Thu 6 Oct; Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, Tue 11– Sat 15 Oct; Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, Tue 18--Sat 22 Oct.