The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil is a landmark piece of Scottish political theatre. Written by John McGrath in 1973 and further popularised as a BBC Play for Today the following year, it is an epic, ambitious work that covers everything from the Highland Clearances to the 70s oil boom and beyond.
It may seem perverse, then, that a show with such a sprawling reach is given such a bargain basement treatment. Surely the history that shaped a country deserves far more? But no, it is not getting that here, and Graham McLaren’s design is slyly stylish in its simplicity. Costumes are nothing more than dressing up box flourishes, hastily pulled on over t-shirts and jeans; you’ve seen school productions with fancier sets. And yet, this sparse, stripped back approach sharpens the production like a blade. In paring away everything superfluous, it allows the powerful, passionate core of the story to shine all the more brightly, unencumbered by frills or fuss.
A talented ensemble – most of them doubling as musicians, led by band leader Christina Gordon – leads the audience in a mini-ceilidh before the show starts. This adds to the ramshackle charm of the production, giving it an intimacy and immediacy that works particularly well in Live, with its mix of standard and cabaret seating.
This ‘let’s put the show on right here!’ air also blurs the lines between audience and actors, making this feel less like a staged performance, more like being regaled by some particularly loquacious friends. Anyone who has spent a decent amount of time in a certain type of Scottish or Irish bar – as, ahem, I may have done – recognises that easy switch from conversation to entertainment, as the guys you were just sharing a pint with morph into a band, a singer, the evening’s turn. It not only recalls the roots of the original 7:84 show, which toured small community venues around Scotland, but reflects the way storytelling itself is baked into the Celtic culture, and it’s tremendously effective.
The play itself at times feels like a revue – a series of songs, skits and sketches from Scottish history, rendered comic by broad performances. But once it gets you on board with laughter, it delivers a series of gut-punches that leave you reeling. It’s packed to the brim with bold touches, such as delivering whole speeches in Gaelic (an impassioned Calum MacDonald managing to hold the audience’s attention even when no one knows what he is saying). A scene where the cast read out the injuries inflicted by the authorities on the women who protested the Clearances – women made up a disproportionate amount of the country’s resistance to such destructive changes and suffered accordingly – as the female members of the audience stand as silent witness is one of the most quietly powerful moments I’ve ever experienced in a theatre.
In such a talented and tightly-meshed ensemble it’s impossible to single out individuals, especially as the production plays so well to their strengths. Stephen Bangs, Billy Mack, Christina Gordon and Jo Freer do particularly well on the comedy side, while Reuben Joseph and Carol Anderson (who is handling Alasdair Macrae’s on-stage musical duties in the Newcastle run) shine in the show’s more empathetic moments. BSL signer Catherine King deserves special mention for her hugely engaging and energetic presence: she feels such an integral part of the show, it’s a shame only a handful of performances are signed.
It’s a piece that remains depressingly relevant – in fact, even more so, as a Remain-leaning Scotland is increasingly disenfranchised by Westminster and its resources exploited by those with no stake in the country or its people. Smartly updated to take in everything from Trump’s golf courses to climate change, at its heart it’s both a timeless story of injustice and a timely reminder that the only thing that ever defeated a handful of people with power was a whole load of other people banding together to stop them.
The production also marks a watershed in the incumbency of Live’s Artistic Director Joe Douglas. Having taken on the role in mid-2018, Douglas has inevitably been operating in the very long shadow of his predecessor Max Roberts – who had been at Live for 30 years and remains on at the theatre as Emeritus Artistic Director. While Clear White Light, Douglas’ first outing as director at his new home, was such a success it’s returning for another run in the autumn, that play was, as Douglas acknowledged, Roberts’ brainchild – a project long-nurtured by him, albeit brought to fruition by his successor. Cheviot, in contrast, is very much Douglas’ baby. He directed the revival this tour is based on while at Dundee Rep to both awards and acclaim. Bringing it to Newcastle feels like he’s truly stamping his mark on the space – and it’s done with a winning combination of lightness, confidence and swagger that bodes well for the theatre’s future.
The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil plays at Live Theatre, Newcastle until 22nd June. More information here.