Theatre review: The Cheviot, The Stag, and The Black, Black Oil, Dundee

IT’S been a mighty late-summer theatre season for Scots who care about the range and brilliance of their recent cultural inheritance, with new stage versions of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and Alan Warner’s The Sopranos taking audiences by storm.

Dundee Rep have put on a glorious revival of the 1973 masterpiece
Dundee Rep have put on a glorious revival of the 1973 masterpiece
Dundee Rep have put on a glorious revival of the 1973 masterpiece

And now, at Dundee Rep, comes Joe Douglas’s glorious revival of what’s arguably the single most important show in the whole history of Scottish theatre: important not only because of its angry, hilarious, brilliantly-researched political content, still almost frighteningly relevant today, but because its ceilidh form, and its passionate commitment to touring to communities large and small, galvanised an irreversible change in what Scotland thought theatre was, what it could do, and who its audience might be.

The task of reviving 7:84 Scotland’s great 1973 masterpiece The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil is therefore a hugely complex one, charged with cultural meaning. And what Joe Douglas and his Dundee company have done is to find a powerful, joyful and hugely effective middle way between a faithful revival of the original text and songs – which they cetainly deliver – and the kind of full-scale updating that this show could certainly take, and may one day get.

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There are moments when the sheer scale and luxury of the production seem slightly startling, compared with the rugged original. The stage at Dundee Rep is a comfortable and spacious place, opened out, in Graham McLaren’s design, into a warm, wooden-floored arena surrounded on three sides by cafe tables. The band, under the direction of MD Alasdair Macrae, features cello, clairsach and double bass as well as the more traditional accordion and fiddle; the ten-strong cast is bigger, and includes a higher proportion of women.

If the staging is more lavish, though, the force of the material remains the same, as the show charts the story of the use and exploitation of Scottish land and resources from the clearances of the 18th century to the 1970s oil boom and beyond. The stage rings to the sound of Gaelic song, beautifully owned and sung by the women of the cast, Irene Macdougall, Jo Freer, Emily Winter and Christina Gordon. Young John Macaulay makes a superbly absurd Duke of Sutherland, Billy Mack is a fine top-hatted villain as the hated Sutherland factor Patrick Sellar.

And if the roars that greet Macaulay’s fleeting appearance as David Cameron, or the odd reference to the independence referendum, suggest an appetite for updating that this memorable production doesn’t quite fulfil, those responses only point the way to a great continuing future for this vital play. In the opening scene, the script points out that the story of Scotland’s land and people is one with a beginning, a middle, and as yet, no end: what this fine, dynamic revival achieves is to ensure that John McGrath’s great play will reach out to a new generation, and continue to evolve, develop, and live, along with the story of Scotland itself.

Dundee Rep, until 26 September.