The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil, originally produced by 7:84 in 1973, is one of the great pieces of 20th-century Scottish theatre. This new production, directed by Joe Douglas for the National Theatre of Scotland – with Newcastle’s Live Theatre and Dundee Rep Theatre – builds on Douglas’ 2015 revival. The result is an entertainment of remarkable contemporary relevance. The Cheviot’s shattering of the fourth wall, ceilidh song, dance and audience participation, and the range of dramatic and musical styles, virtually compel the audience to embrace its insistent political line.
Now touring, this Cheviot – compact and interactive – presents fresh arguments and makes fresh connections. The core of the original is intact, with skilled musicianship punctuating and enriching a narrative of short scenes. The familiar archetypes and unmistakable polemic points remain. However, this is a 21st-century show. The tragic 18th- & 19th-century Highland stories of dispossession and clearance are now linked by a rotating ‘MC’ role to contemporary situations of exploitation. So we move from black humour, farce, and harrowing testimony, to an explicit anti-capitalist message. Douglas and the superbly talented ensemble have wrought wonders with what could have been dated material.
It is in rebooting The Cheviot as an example of international and transnational exploitation that the NTS succeeds. The specifically Scottish experience is fused with what Graeme MacDonald has called “relentless marketisation and commodification.” Cast members recite the names of lands where indigenous populations were removed and global corporations profit from others’ labour. So the play climaxes with tales of crofter resistance, before reaching a wider tone of defiance. The target is no longer the caricatured 19th-century factor Patrick Sellar or even his employer the Duke of Sutherland, but: “Outside capital, with the connivance of the local ruling class and central government.”
Thus, modern issues of the oil industry, holiday homes (even Airbnbs) and the effects of tourism, resonate strongly. By the end, The Cheviot’s careering juggernaut has taken us on an exhilarating ride. Extracts from the Napier Commission, plangent song, line dance, broad pantomime banter, polemic – whatever the form – the versatile and capable cast creates effective and moving theatre.
An inherent problem is the role of Gaelic song as a generalised Good, a somewhat sentimental element. An example is “Och! a Thearlaich òg Stiubhairt” – which, as Ian Brown and Sim Innes have pointed out, is wrongly described as “a Jacobite song”. And “Mo Dhachaigh”, a nostalgic Lowland spin on the Highlands, doesn’t really qualify as authentic. Such mythologising of the Highlands remains problematic in Scottish identity and culture. That said, the cast handles well the substantial Gaelic-language content, and the quality of musicianship and acting is stirring throughout. This production will thoroughly engage audiences.