Review: The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh)

Dundee Rep’s acclaimed production of John McGrath’s 1973 play arrives in the capital

The cast of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil
The cast of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil
© Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

It’s rare that a play attains such a level of public affection and fame that people still talk about it with misty eyes decades later. However, in Scotland at least, John McGrath’s Cheviot is just such a piece. People who saw the premiere in 1973 still talk about it as an outlook-changing work, both personally and professionally, and The Scotsman famously described it as "arguably the single most important show in the whole history of Scottish theatre." When the Dundee Rep staged this production in 2015, it was such a hit that they decided to take it nationwide. So it rolls now into Edinburgh on a high wave of expectation.

The play is effectively a narrative history of the Highlands, and the title refers to the different stages of economic exploitation that the region underwent. Most of the Highlanders were cleared out in the early 19th century to make way for the resilient and profitable cheviot sheep. Later, the stag was bred to create targets for super-rich hunting parties, and now it’s oil that is the biggest industry (on the east coast at any rate). Passages of the play have also been tactfully rewritten for this revival, including references to the current economic downturn and Donald Trump’s golf courses.

Joe Douglas‘ production, like the text, turns this into a play of the people. When you enter the auditorium, the cast of ten are already in the midst of a ceilidh in which they encourage the audience to get involved, and this creates a genial, warm atmosphere that’s very effective at winning the audience’s sympathy. More importantly, the frequent audience participation chimes with the atmosphere of people power, because the play’s grim theme is of how the common people of the Highlands have regularly been the losers from the region’s "improvements", something that, arguably, is still happening today.

It’s powerful theatre, and it’s exciting to see that proper political drama is able to galvanise audiences and energise them. As the play wore on, though, it began to feel too polemical. You can forgive any play for taking liberties with historical facts or deploying selective memory, but when the message is rammed home so repeatedly, it begins to grate. Ultimately, the play lacks real nuance: passages of the second act might as well have an SNP rosette splashed over them (one scene actually does).

If you can take the simplicity of its message, however, it’s a rewarding, as well as an enjoyable night. The music is cracking throughout, whether recreating the atmosphere of a village ceilidh or impersonating a country and western band to accompany the Texas oil barons. Plus the play’s feminist left wing energy is often invigorating.

In a way, it is a pity that it takes a play written 43 years ago to address the political landscape. Scottish public life has never been more argumentative than it is now, whether over the economy, the constitution or the Brexit question. But where are today’s playwrights putting this on stage? Maybe that’s something David Greig is thinking about as he takes up the reigns as the Lyceum’s new artistic director. The world will be watching him like a hawk to find out.

The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil runs at the Edinburgh Lyceum until 24 September, then on tour until 22 October.