The original production of John McGrath’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil in 1973 was heralded as revolutionary theatre. Its exploration of timeless themes such as economic exploitation and national identity surprised and delighted Scottish audiences with its honesty and relevance. As a show originally designed to tour village halls of the Highlands, one might imagine some of the intimacy could be lost in the larger space of Edinburgh’s Lyceum. However, the funny and poignant script – updated for a 2016 audience – guarantees the latest production of The Cheviot remains as relevant as ever.
The production blends song, drama, poetry and humour to recount a history of economic and social change in the Scottish Highlands, from the Highland Clearances in the 18th century through to the oil boom of the 1970s. The unusual mix of theatrical styles kicks off with the cast inviting the audience on stage for a ceilidh dance. The live music – under the direction of the dynamic Alasdair Macrae – flows as a continuous thread throughout, weaving together stories that stand hundreds of years apart. In the occasional moments where the writing slows, the music gives the performance momentum and ensures the evening provides “A Good Night Out” – the stated aim of the director, Joe Douglas.
The performances from Dundee Rep Ensemble are universally excellent, with members of the ten-strong cast adopting multiple roles and each delivering an impressive solo piece. The diversity of Irene Macdougall’s performance is most impressive and her leadership of the cast captured an important feminist theme. One of the most moving moments of the evening is a recital of the important roles of women in resisting The Clearances. The use of individuals’ names and stories personalises the accounts and draws the audience closer to the script’s historical narrative.
Humour is skilfully used to keep the tone light and the audience charmed without detracting from the seriousness of the themes explored. Billy Mack’s perfect timing and fluidity in his delivery meant that the moments of pantomime farce remained endearing, rather than grating, and could have even the most seasoned theatre-goer joining in choruses of “It’s behind you!”
Some of the most cutting and comedic elements of The Cheviot are the updated references, newly written for this touring production. A Donald Trump parody – complete with the ensemble building a physical wall around the decreeing character and chants of “Make Balmedie Great Again!” – had many in the audience in stitches. It highlighted important points regarding current political discourse and its parallels with the deception and exploitation seen throughout history.
Repetition of songs and lines of dialogue in each section of the play demonstrates this mirroring of history between generations and allusions to Brexit and Scottish independence captured the on-going sense of political estrangement and disenfranchisement felt by people up and down the country.
The roars of laughter from the audience throughout and the well-earned standing ovation as the curtains closed demonstrated the engagement and appreciation of the audience with this beautifully executed piece of revitalised theatre.
The Cheviot, The Stag, and The Black, Black Oil at the Lyceum Theatre – run now ended
Photo credit: desomurchu archive gallery