43 years after its debut performance and over 20 since its last tour, the play that has been hailed as defining the evolution of Scottish theatre is back in the capital. The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil makes a triumphant return to the stage and delights a nearly-full Lyceum thanks to deft handling from director Joe Douglas, energetic and enthusiastic performances from the entire 10-strong cast of Dundee Rep and a few minor tweaks and additions to the script to bring the production into the 21st century.
Originally penned in 1973 by John McGrath, the play is a musical exploration of exploitation of Scottish land and waters over the years. It begins in the mid-18th century aftermath of the Battle of Culloden, before focusing on the Highland Clearances and the appropriation of huge swathes of countryside for rich southern landowners. The discovery of North Sea Oil just a few years prior to the play’s creation provides the impetus for the final third.
Though the events discussed in the piece are almost unanimously negative, the celebration of rebellion (particularly among women), the satirical depiction of certain characters and the general ceilidh atmosphere mean that there’s more defiance than dirge to the performance. The intervening period has provided plenty of scope for Douglas to update the story (especially in the last five years) and the production duly misses no opportunity to score cheap but hearty laughs about Brexit, the Scottish Referendum and Donald Trump.
But although these comic scenes are among the strongest in the show’s 155-minute duration, their side-by-side juxtaposition with more poignant and affecting moments seems a little uneven. Though there are a handful of superb set-pieces (such as the use of a handheld camera to recreate the burning of crofts, a rabble-rousing rendition of The Battle of the Braes and a soulful call-to-arms at the final curtain), the integrity and gravitas of these scenes is a little compromised by the Ann Summers quips and caricature assassinations which have preceded them only minutes before.
What’s more, the sprawling nature of the show threatens to be overwhelming at times. The company make excellent use of audience interaction to reinforce the play’s message of united resistance to oppression, but the casual approach to costume, the complete absence of a fourth wall and the open-plan set-up of the stage can be a little disorientating, especially when the action races through the centuries and across the continents at breakneck pace.
Similarly, the final act suffers slightly from trying to drag it into the modern day. Whereas McGrath’s original script was intended as a rallying call for the Scottish people to prevent history from repeating itself, it’s a tragic truth that this call seems to have gone largely unheeded, with the profits of this nation’s bountiful resources benefitting only a select few. To hammer home this point, the audience are bombarded with a string of statistics and it begins to feel uncomfortably like a history lesson, rather than a theatrical production.
Having said that, the show is still a resolute success in its commingling of historical acts of heroism, political soapboxing, snatches of Gaelic song and unadulterated satire. For a celebration of Scottish identity, as well as a resolute cry for us to learn from our mistakes in the past, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil is as relevant today as it was on its opening night. While that in itself might be an unspeakably sad fact, the play itself is far more of a joy to contemplate.