The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil
Powerful performance and production presents politically problematic philosophy
By restaging 7:84's seminal ceilidh-play, The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black Black Oil in theatres, Dundee Rep's production has abandoned many of the qualities that made its 1973 debut so distinctive. In the 1973 production, which toured in venues outside of traditional theatres, the connection between the audience and performers was enhanced, with the party atmosphere encouraging a lively collaboration. While it retains the signifiers of the ceilidh – folk music, an introductory social dance, a spot of audience participation – Joe Douglas' direction both updates the content and disconnects the script from its origins.
Having said this, the pace and the performances of The Cheviot are impressive: the cast ably jump between roles and, after a slow first half, bring a sparkling wit and energy to the cabaret style routines, playing with pantomime call-and-response, teasing the audience and getting across the direct political content without sacrificing seriousness or fun. The band is dynamic, led by the irrepressible Alasdair Macrae. The message – that Scotland has been abused by a distant political class – hits home, with a moving finale that calls out for action.
Nevertheless, placing The Cheviot in a theatre, and losing the intimacy of the ceilidh play, undermines that message. That a 1973 political play has lost none of its relevance is alarming enough – the exploitation of Scotland's natural resources and the corruption of the government continues apace – but without a positive channel for the emotions the script evokes, the litany of wrongs becomes a form of virtue signalling. The deserved ovation for the performers and the wit of the script could be a substitute for engagement, effectively allowing the audience to perform rather than enact resistance.
The additions to John McGrath's script – especially the appearance of Donald Trump – highlight how little has changed, and the respect paid to the Gaelic language is a moving elegy for a culture that has been attacked by the state over the past centuries. It is a powerful production, yet the failure to identify how the call for 'power to the people' can translate into action betrays the uncompromising vision of 7:84.
The Cheviot retains a fierce political sensitivity, and holds up the establishment to mockery, yet this production fails to address a common problem of political theatre: how can the intentions of the play be translated into action? While Douglas and his cast have reanimated a classic Scottish play, and tapped an informal and populist dynamism, there is a danger that it is a steam-valve for frustration rather than a bracing call to arms.
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, until Sat 22 Oct.