The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil is at the Lyceum Theatre for a short run in a production from Dundee Rep and, as you would expect, is playing to a full house tonight.
The subject matter of this work makes diving into the uncertain waters of political history impossible to avoid in some way in this review, but the way the work is structured in song, poetry, music and factual documentation gives the cast of Dundee Rep plenty of opportunity to bring to life what could be an otherwise dull history lesson.
With its main focus on the Highland clearances of the early to mid 19th century, we are forced to examine a part of Scotland’s history that for too long was simply not taught or at best quickly skimmed over in schools, and although we examine briefly the exploitation of the people and the land for nothing more than pure capitalistic monetary gain, the sheer brutality of the clearances and their tragic effects at a personal level are dealt with, but not at a level that becomes too dark for too long...the story has to move on, and part of the success of this work is its ability to find humour in the darkest of places and also the skill here of Dundee Rep to switch easily from light to dark when needed.
This is an odd piece of work at times as the very subject matter of the piece is always the star, and whatever company is presenting it are to some degree merely messengers, but the cleverly written ceilidh format of it allows for audience participation at many times, and that itself breaks down any barriers that normally exist between the audience and the stage. This is community theatre if, like tonight, presented properly.
There are many subjects explored here in what is essentially a story of a nation being systematically stripped of its human and natural resources over centuries, and a political and economic system that favoured that (and still does). We touch a little bit towards the end on the almost unbelievable mis-management of national resources in the shape of Scottish oil, and there are some nice musical parodies here as well as a few up to date political figure ones.
All of our show is played out under the huge head and shoulders of Edwin Landseer’s famous “Monarch of the Glen” painting, an image once seen as iconic that now hangs in a not too prominent position in the National Museums of Scotland.
Along the way in our story, and with the able help of Dundee Rep’s performers we do touch on one of the great ironies of the Highland clearances – the fact that the wide open spaces created by them effectively turned huge areas of Scotland into little more than Victorian hunting and fishing theme parks, and that image is now very much an income generating one that brings tourism and money into Scotland. Who would ever have thought that the humble Cheviot sheep could be responsible for this as it took economic value and rights over human beings.
I have avoided mentioning here individual performers of Dundee Rep as this is a company performance and the very nature of this work really has no star parts...and everyone has a part in this story.
Since this work was written by John McGrath in the 1970s and first performed in 1973 it has over the years become almost as much a part of Scottish history as the very history that it explores, and over the 40 plus years of its life the one thing that is clear is that we have learned very little from the history that we are examining here and it looks as if we are always going to continue repeating the same mistakes over and over.
Review by Tom King