Theatre review: The Cheviot, The Stag And the Black, Black Oil

The Dundee Rep ensemble gave a blazing reading of the seminal Seventies text

The Dundee Rep ensemble gave a blazing reading of the seminal Seventies text

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PARLIAMENTS come, and governments go. Yet some aspects of Scottish life hardly seem to change; and among them is the fact that we have what is, by some measures, the most concentrated and inequitable pattern of land ownership in the western world.

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

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It was this fact, and its history and consequences, that inspired John McGrath of 7:84, back in 1973, to start putting together the roadshow-cum-ceilidh that became The Cheviot, The Stag, And The Black, Black Oil, and helped change the face of Scottish theatre forever.

And although the text is now crying out for a full-scale update by the latest generation of young theatre-makers – one every few years might be a good idea, in fact – this almost entirely faithful large-scale revival by the Dundee Rep Ensemble, first seen last autumn and now on tour, only emphasises how strongly the basic structure of the show, partly co-written on the road by McGrath’s remarkable company, still reflects the underlying pulse of Scottish politics, from fundamental issues of land ownership and rights, to the vital matter of energy policy, and how to ensure that it actually benefits the people.

Joe Douglas’s relatively lavish staging – with a cast of ten that often forms into a six-piece band, and a warm, easygoing village hall set by 
Graham McLaren – offers only a few minor updated references to Donald Trump and the decline of the oil price, received with rapture by the audience; it barely touches on the rich material offered by the rise of renewables, the fracking debate, or the new wave of community land buyouts.

Yet the fundamental shape of the show – marked out in passionate Gaelic laments, furious satirical songs, and angry echoes of a Gaelic-speaking culture once almost destroyed by the Highland Clearances –remains as hard-hitting and as necessary as ever. During the interval, one distinguished Lyceum-goer assured me that the play’s satire against the hunting, shooting and fishing classes had never originally been so crude. Yet the song – “we’ve cleared the straths, we’ve cleared the paths, we’ve cleared the bens, we’ve cleared the glens, we’ll show them we’re the ruling class” – was word for word as John Bett and Elizabeth MacLennan first co-wrote and performed it, 43 years ago. Plus ca change, in other words, plus c’est la meme chose; and the more we need shows like The Cheviot, which serve to remind us that another world is possible, and always has been.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 24 September, and then on tour to Aberdeen, Inverness and Glasgow, until 22 October.

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