“It begins, I suppose, with 1746 – Culloden and all that. The Highlands were in a bit of a mess.'”
As is so often the way these days. accepting an invitation to an engagement party in Glasgow went hand in hand with looking to see what was on at the theatre. And I was rather pleased to see that I would catch the end of the tour of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil. Dundee Rep revived the Scottish classic to great acclaim last year and consequently remounted it for this Scottish tour, of which Glasgow is the final stop.
Written by Liverpudlian playwright John McGrath in the early 1970s and staged then by 7:84 (Scotland), the show shook up the theatrical establishment by playing venues outside of traditional theatres and telling the story of the Scottish highlands in a way that (presumably) hadn’t been done before. So from the population clearances to make way for sheep, to the stag introduced to encourage the super-rich to hunt, to the oil boom, this is a story of economic exploitation and its effects on those exploited.
This it does most imaginatively in the form of a ceilidh, as the multi-instrumentalist company slip seamlessly from cabaret sequences to comedy routines to political sketches, even lists of statistics, to great effect. Joe Douglas’ direction maintains interest throughout, particularly through Alasdair Macrae’s band, as it draws in the audience, sometimes even through direct participation.
But for a play that’s over 40 years old (and still, it has to be said, with moments of piercing relevance), there are moments that feel extremely laboured, especially since the subsequent rise of the SNP, where any attempts at subtlety are simply abandoned. And updating the text to include the economic crisis and Donald Trump again feels heavy-handed, leaving you wondering if any contemporary Scottish playwrights are looking at these issues and writing plays for here and now. For the moment though, The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil is a more than able substitute.