The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil. If the name doesn’t trigger at least a little bit of recognition, chances are you’ve been away from the Scottish theatre scene for the past year. Dundee Reps’ revival and modernisation of John McGrath’s show has been much anticipated and its sold out run provides testament to the excitement surrounding it. First performed in 1973 at a conference at the University of Edinburgh, it evolved into a travelling production that went around Scotland with its cast doubling up as crew playing at a variety of venues, and ultimately changing the face of Scottish theatre.
Perhaps one of the most passionate and insightful portrayals of Scottish modern history on stage The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil is extremely thought provoking. It is interesting to watch a piece that seems so political yet demands the audience to form their own opinions. It is also extremely interesting in the political situation today to watch this play and know what pieces certain political thinkers would seize and might miss out and vice versa. Especially with the current independence push again it could come across as an extremely pro-independence production whereas personally I felt the message was pro-information and anti-capitalist rather than ‘yes, Scotland is categorically better alone and independent’.
Very historically based the section on the Highland Clearances was by far the most evocative and emotional. Through this part of the play I experienced real feelings of heartbreak for these Scottish people who were treated so abysmally and felt such a connection with my homeland that I seldom reflect upon. Hearing the songs and poems written by the exiled Scots was difficult and hit something so true that at times I was close to tears. I think it is very easy for people to talk about the colonialist nature of Britain and the atrocities committed abroad when equally many were committed at home in the name of capitalism and money. However it also wasn’t as black and white when it came to the landowners, the general painting of the play was that the landowners were majorly English but historically if you traced some of the gentry’s genealogies they would really have been Scottish noblemen, though obviously some were English.
The cast were extremely polished, a strong camaraderie amongst the ten of them was evident and became clearer throughout the show. Doubling up multiple characters their enthusiasm and interest in the production they were performing was obvious, it was refreshing to see actors involved in something they clearly believed in and were passionate about. My favourite inclusion was the job of Calum MacDonald, from North Uist, who highlighted the plight of Gaelic as a language in Scotland. The only native Gaelic speaker on the cast he has expertly taught the other nine so they were comfortable and proficient performing in Gaelic on stage. Until the revelation towards the end of the show you would have thought they were original speakers with the confident and easy way they used the language, seamlessly integrated into the show flowing between Gaelic and English.
The set and lighting were unobtrusive allowing the show to take place without unnecessary distraction. This is a play of heart and loud lighting has no place, however, the homely and subtle lighting complemented the show perfectly. The cast handled the majority of set pieces themselves, as well as a projector which was set up poignantly to project the crofts of the Highlanders on the magnificent backdrop of a stag. Most effective of all the set was definitely that of the hill and the crofts and when they set a croft on fire it was perhaps the saddest thing I’ve ever seen a stage piece portray.
In conclusion, it was a fantastic piece that gave me enough information to set something loose in me that wants me to find out more about this fantastic country I live in and the laws and legislations that bind and control her. It also encouraged me to really enjoy and be proud of Scotland and admire the beauty of her whilst I’m here.