Arguably the most significant work of new theatre from
“north of the border” in recent years is the National Theatre of Scotland’s
What is most startling about The Cheviot today is just how relevant, bold and enjoyable a piece of theatre it remains
What is most startling about The Cheviot today is just how relevant, bold and enjoyable a piece of theatre it remains; if it was devised as a “State of the Nation” play in 1973, this vibrant, ceilidh-styled resurrection by Dundee Rep Ensemble proves its still very much on-the-money in 2015. Of course, Scotland and the wider world have changed significantly in that time, but the team at Dundee Rep have only needed to tweak the script – a Rab C Nesbitt reference here, a nod to last year’s Independence Referendum there – because, equally, so much about Western capitalism hasn’t changed at all.
Nominally, The Cheviot focuses on how economic forces affected the Scottish Highlands and Western Isles from the late 18th century to the present day: a story, we’re told, that “has a middle, a beginning, but not yet an end”. It’s also a tale from which we’ve apparently failed to recognise past mistakes, and so continue to repeat them. “Have we learned anything from the Clearances?” we’re asked towards the close. Not just the 18th and 19th century removal – often violent – of the Highlands’supposed “redundant population” to make way for the “technological leap” of the Cheviot (a breed of sheep hardy enough to survive in the hills), but also the late 20th century’s Oil industry-inspired rises in house prices that forced yet more people to leave.
There’s anger here, but also hope in those – mostly women – who protested and fought back. Nor is The Cheviot just about making fun of people with posh English accents; we’re reminded that the ruling class, whatever their nationality, are “not just figures of fun”. Yet there’s certainly fun to be had with director Joe Douglas’s production. With a bagpiper welcoming everyone outside the theatre (at least on the night of this review), the audience then discovers, as they come in to find their seats, that the nine-strong ensemble cast have already kicked off the party. This is a show that starts before it starts; seldom have you felt such a buzz from the word go. (Mind you, the free nip of whisky probably helps!)
Additionally, and reflecting its original touring roots in some of Scotland’s tiniest venues, some of the audience are seated on the enlarged stage area throughout, albeit risking being dragged out for a dance or to help in the model recreation of a Highland glen. Other audience members are also invited out at the close to help read out the final lines of the play. That they don’t always do so very well – proving a need for professional actors – isn’t the point; it aptly underscores McGrath’s point that unless economic power is in the hands of the people, no culture is secure – be it Gaelic or English-speaking.