DESPITE being considered one of the great Scottish plays, The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil has rarely been revived. Director Joe Douglas tells Mark Fisher why now is the perfect time to revisit it
Far be it from me to say Joe Douglas is taking his job too seriously. But when you find out the director has spent the last few weeks living in a field, it does make you wonder. Not only is he staging a play about the misappropriation of Scotland’s land, but for the duration of rehearsals he’s been holed up in a tent. If his rare revival of John McGrath’s landmark play The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil turns out to have a special level of authenticity, you’ll know why.
“It’s a play about the land, so I thought, ‘Let’s get on the land, change with the seasons and see how it goes,’” says Douglas who’s been camping in Monifieth, a couple of train stops outside Dundee. “It does root you somehow. And I’ve not been rained out yet.”
By his own admission, taking on this Scottish theatre classic is a scary thing to do. Staged in 1973 by 7:84 Scotland, it was a play that galvanised a generation of audiences and theatremakers. Among the cast were the young John Bett, Bill Paterson and Alex Norton, while the pop-up book set was designed by John Byrne. Many of those who saw it, including Dundee Rep’s Ann Louise Ross, went on to have stellar theatrical careers of their own.
With its ceilidh-like structure, use of music and direct address, and blend of radical politics and knockabout humour, it exerted an influence over Scottish theatre that can be felt to this day. Without it, we wouldn’t have had A Play, A Pie And A Pint (established by 7:84 luminary David MacLennan), Gregory Burke’s Black Watch or the latest big Edinburgh Fringe hit Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour.
Most plays with a similar status have been revived repeatedly, but not this one. Something about its political topicality, the actor-centred way in which it was created and the tremendous acclaim for the original production means directors have been reluctant to return to it. The last major revival was by Wildcat in 1991.
Douglas, though, thinks the time is right. “Very occasionally, there are parts that don’t speak as much to now as 1973, but almost all of it is terrifyingly pertinent,” he says. “There’ll be an awareness in the audience that this is from the 70s, in terms of the American corporations coming in and clearing up, but it also speaks to the present moment.”
The theme of the play is the exploitation of Scotland’s working class, a story that has been retold through history, whether it be the clearances of the 19th-century, when landowners forced ordinary people off their estates, or the North Sea oil boom that was in full swing at the time of the first production. It is a pattern, says Douglas, that is still being repeated.
“We are being shafted constantly,” he says. “It’s very easy to forget, particularly at the moment with the government the way it is, how wealthy and separate the front bench is. The class war feels pertinent and the play articulates a lot of the thoughts that people are having at the moment.”
He adds: “With everything that’s happened: the financial crises, the referendum, the general election and democracy blooming all over the country, especially in Dundee, it felt like it was really the right time.”
Playwright and director McGrath, who died in 2002, believed that a truly left-wing theatre should be radical in form as well as in content. The inspirational series of lectures he collected in his book, A Good Night Out, argues that there is political meaning not just in what we see on stage but in the way it is presented and the shape it takes. It made no sense to him to tell a working-class story in a bourgeois theatre with all the trappings of elitism and exclusion. Instead, he drew on popular performance traditions, such as music hall and ceilidh, and took the show to the village halls and community centres where his intended audiences were most at home.
In his presentation at Dundee Rep, Douglas has taken inspiration from this approach, working with designer Graham McLaren (moonlighting from the National Theatre of Scotland) to remind audiences and actors that they are sharing the same place. “For the audience, participation is integral,” says the director. “When you go to a ceilidh, it doesn’t work without participation. It’s not a gig, it’s a ceilidh. You have to get up and you have to get involved. My challenge is to create an atmosphere where people are up for it. That’s influenced Graham’s design of it and the overall environment.”
He’s thinking of the show like an after-hours lock-in, with the tables cleared to the sides and the dancing about to kick off. Some of the audience will be on the stage, while parts of the performance will take place in the auditorium. “One of the reasons I wanted to do it at the Rep is that it’s one of the only theatres that feels like it’s one big room,” he says. “The relationship with the audience is really two way. We’re building out into the first few rows and laying a whole floor because this show is synonymous with village halls and it needs to have a bit of that feel.”
In tandem with the crack music and sound team of Aly Macrae and Michael John McCarthy, he is drawing on the skills of the large Dundee Rep ensemble (larger, incidentally, than the old 7:84 company).
“We’re able to work with the strengths of the people in the room and in that way, it feels quite bespoke,” says Douglas, citing the comedic gifts of actor Billy Mack and the musical prowess of the Rep’s new graduate recruits, Christina Gordon and Stephen Bangs. “You look around the room and go, ‘You can do this, you’re good at this,’ and you draw them out so that, hopefully, you will feel that it can only be these ten people that can perform it.”
In preparing for the production, Douglas was lucky enough to speak at length to Elizabeth MacLennan, who starred in the original production and was married to McGrath. Sadly, she died from leukaemia in June at the age of 77. “We had some really brilliant conversations about it,” says Douglas. “She was incredibly sprightly and alive – so positive and affirming. She talked about it going like a train. It needs to have a disorientating feel: it’s always clear to the audience, but they shouldn’t know what’s coming up next. She was really pleased it was happening and I just wish she could have seen it.”
Back in his tent in Monifieth, Douglas finds constant reminders about The Cheviot’s relevance. “I woke up crazy early the other day, like five in the morning, and went for a walk on the beach. I came across a military zone. It said, ‘Don’t walk here when the flag says.’ Literally five miles outside Dundee you can’t go round this beautiful bit of coast. This play is definitely alive.”
• The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil, Dundee Rep, 9–26 September.