This time it’s personal:
Rewind to the early nineties, Edinburgh University and the Scottish Literature course.
I read a lot then, but I devoured John McGrath’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. It was theatre as I had never imagined it, politics I hadn’t dared to dream of – and history as I had never encountered it. The play sparked an enduring fascination with the Highland Clearances – a subject and which is now the backdrop to my historical children’s novel Fir for Luck, out in September (Cranachan Publishing).
Dundee Rep’s Associate Artistic Director Joe Douglas is a busy man; in addition to directing Cheviot’s run at the Dundee Rep and its subsequent Scottish tour, The Red Shed, a show about the Yorkshire miners’ strikes, will be performed at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in August. Finding himself preparing more than one production at once, a Tuesday morning phone interview is what is on offer, and I gladly accept. Answering promptly, he is warm, passionate, articulate, and absolutely serious about the role of theatre as a political force.
Described by Joyce MacMillan as ‘arguably the single most important show in the whole history of Scottish theatre’, 7:84’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil is a compelling project for Douglas: ‘It speaks people’s history to themselves. This kind of history wasn’t taught.’
Douglas was born two days into Thatcher’s second term and remembers the sense of disillusionment when the Blair government, welcomed with such hope, turned sour. ‘We’ve sort of come full circle a bit,’ he muses when asked what draws him to stories of 1970s and 80s socialism, so uncompromising and unapologetic. ‘Scotland is plain-speaking, as a theatre culture. It’s political. I wanted to pay homage to that. In terms of ideology, we need to find a different way. A new way of doing things.’
The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil presents the history of oppression in Scotland as a Highland ceilidh, a satirical take on the brutal Highland Clearances, the injustices of land ownership (with the 19th century wealthy indulging in their stag hunts) and finally the profit-for-profit’s-sake exploitation during the oil boom.
Despite – or possibly because of – the seriousness of the issues it explores, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil brims with humour. One of Douglas’s favourite parts is when the duo Lord Crask and Lady Phosphate prance around on stage, wielding hunting guns and abusing their Ghillie. ‘It’s funny, but it sort of sums up how the land was just a playground for the wealthy Anglo-Saxon upper classes. During their song, they hold their rifles aloft during the line “we’re the ruling class”. The class war is alive and well today.’
Has he adapted the play at all, to reflect recent Scottish events such as the independence referendum or the Brexit debate? Not much, he answers ‘but there could – no, maybe there should – be another production about where Scotland is now.’
Apart from the political issues it raises, Douglas is clear about why he chose to work on Cheviot. ‘I just wanted to see it, primarily.’ He laughs. ‘I watched the original performance at Dornie village hall on YouTube. I just wanted to see it.’
The enthusiasm of Douglas the theatre man is evident – it is an exciting piece of work, and he wanted to experience it. Mixing song, comedy and drama in this unique format is sure to make for a varied and entertaining evening.
No wonder then, that his parting shot echoes the same sentiment. ‘The fun, the music, the singing, the joining in – it’s bigger, I think, than the sum of its parts. It’s informative, it’s interesting – but above all, I want people to have a good night out.’
Thankfully, the good night out won’t be limited to Dundee Rep audiences.
As I said, this time it’s personal. More than two decades after first reading The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, and like Joe Douglas, I just want to see it!
The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil opens @ Dundee Rep on Wed 31 Aug until Sat 10 Sep, before touring to Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness and Glasgow. Full details at http://cheviottour.co.uk/