In the 1890s, Mary MacPherson, a poet from Skeabost, Skye, penned a song of protest, after her family had been systematically cleared from the land. Written in Gaelic, the translation goes “Remember that you are a people and fight for your rights… There is richness under your feet.” The lament concludes with the forlorn hope “Everybody in the land will have a place”.
Ownership of the land, and the exploitation of the nation’s resources, are issues that continue to colour the political discourse of modern Scotland. The SNP’s Land Reform Act, fracking, and changes to the Aberdeen-based oil industry all ensure that John McGrath’s ground-breaking docu-drama The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil is every bit as relevant today as it was when it was first performed in Aberdeen in 1973.
Back then, McGrath’s 7.84 theatre company took its name from a 1966 statistic: 7% of the population of Great Britain owned 84% of the wealth. Its aims were simple – to present to a working class audience the reality and history of the working class. Today, award-winning director Joe Douglas shares McGrath’s vision for a proletarian telling of a story, which, in many ways, is still being written.
Working with a crack creative team, including National Theatre for Scotland designer Graham McLaren, and lighting and sound designers Kate Bonney and Michael John McCarthy, Douglas leads the audience in a breathtaking dance through over two centuries of Scottish history. From the Clearances, when over 15,000 people were forcibly evicted to make way for 200,000 sheep, to the 1970s oil boom, often-brutal events are recounted in a whirl of archival evidence, radical politics, and knockabout humour.
Graham McLaren’s remit was to remind both audience and actors that they are sharing the same space. This has been cleverly executed by transforming the stage into an after-hours bar, complete with ceilidh band and cabaret-style seating for members of the audience. This provides an intimate, inclusive feel from the outset. “The ceilidh is an act of pure democracy,” Douglas has remarked. “When you go to a ceilidh, it doesn’t work without participation. You have to get up and get involved.”
Indeed, the rapport between the audience and the actors is key to the success of the show. The interactive element encourages the sense that we are all very much “on the same side”, whether singing and dancing, reading aloud political statements, or “witnessing” a catalogue of horrific injuries sustained by those who fought to stay on the land.
With members of the exceptionally talented cast taking on multiple roles, it is an almost impossible task to single out any individual for special plaudits. In a recent interview, Douglas has praised the comedic gifts of actor Billy Mack, and the musical talents of the Rep’s new graduate recruits, Christina Gordon and Stephen Bangs. He explains “We’re able to work with the strengths of the people in the room and in that way, it feels quite bespoke.” Rep stalwart Irene Macdougall, as always, lends gravitas and passion to the proceedings, while Emily Winter positively shines in both male and female roles; she makes a convincing Lord Polwarth and a hysterically funny Lady Phosphate. Jo Freer deserves a special mention for her wonderful portrayal of a Glaswegian property developer, Andy McChuckemup.
Despite its iconic status, directors have been reluctant to bring this highly politicised drama to the stage. There is much about it that is polemic and controversial – scathing political satire and a fair bit of American-bashing. However, having been granted permission to stage the play professionally for the first time in twenty years, the Dundee Rep Ensemble has risen to the challenge, and given us a fresh, energetic, and thoroughly unique interpretation.