The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil

Arguably the most significant work of new theatre from “north of the border” in recent years is the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch, an excellent example of inventive docu-drama and fourth-wall-breaking storytelling which justifiably garnered acclaim and numerous awards around the world. Yet, in many respects, John McGrath’s The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil got there first by about three decades, becoming the ancestor cell for a whole new style of indigenous Scottish theatre when first presented by 7:84 (a “left-wing agitprop theatre group”, if you ask Wikikpedia) in 1973.

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. 

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

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The Blurb

The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil is a musical drama by John McGrath which explores stories and experiences of Scotland’s land, sea and people across the centuries. Performed as a Highland ceilidh, with song, humour and drama intermixed, it remains as vital and relevant today as it was when 7:84 Scotland first presented it back in 1973.

The Cheviot soon become a cornerstone of contemporary Scottish theatre, exploring the economic changes in the Scottish Highlands throughout history: the ruthless evictions of Highland crofters making way for the more economically viable Cheviot sheep in the 18th century, the development of stag hunts in game parks in the 19th; and the exploitation of resources during the 1970s’ North Sea Oil boom.

Dundee Rep Ensemble has uniquely been granted permission to present this pivotal piece of Scottish theatre in the first professional production on the Scottish stage in more than twenty years.

Fully accessible seating is available on stage in a cabaret-style for all performances during the run. If you would like to be close to the action, audience members are invited to book seats on stage alongside the actors. If you think you would like to take advantage of this exciting opportunity and relish the opportunity to be in the thick of the action, please visit the Box Office team or call on 01382 223530 to secure your seat.

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