The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black, Black Oil by Alice Cruickshank
I have an issue with actors wearing their own clothes on stage. There is so synergy between a motley group in mismatched (and, dare I say it? Yes, I will- ugly) clothes. And when the costumes are not much more inspiring- an old knitted shawl apparently transforms the actors into 18th century crofters- it can be hard to expect great things from a production.
However, The Dundee Rep and their production of The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil completely proved me wrong. Messy visuals aside, the company’s acting skills are second to none.
First presented 40 years ago, the play explores the complex history of the Scottish Highlands and its many changes throughout history, from the ruthless evictions of Highland crofters to make way for the more economically viable Cheviot sheep in the 18th century, to the development of stag hunts in the 19th century and finally the exploitation of resources during the North Sea Oil boom of the 1970s and beyond.
Like the costumes, the staging is simplistic, though there is some very clever live-action camera work. The team have successfully portrayed what is a complicated play,made for an intimate crowd, into a powerful performance for a medium-sized audience.
What starts as a history lesson turns into an extremely political piece of work. The play is not always comfortable viewing, but comfortable seldom makes extraordinary theatre. Modern twists are added to keep this 70s play current, with none other than Mr. Donald Trump himself making an appearance, and some Brexit references thrown in for good measure.
The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil was originally written by John McGrath as a ceilidh-style musical, though the Dundee Rep has tried to move the performance away from this style. The night opened with a traditional Canadian Barn Dance complete with audience participation, but otherwise this production focused more on the poignant history McGrath’s play has to offer.
A word of warning- there is a lot of audience participation in this production. From pantomime-inspired ‘he’s behind you’ moments, to sing-alongs, and audience members reading lines on stage, beware the expectation to get involved.
The talented crew took on several roles each, seamlessly morphing from character to character. There was not one weak link in the cast, with every one of them talented actors and musicians alike- something that is very rare indeed.
It is rare for a piece of theatre to really stay in my mind. Yet The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil is a completely unforgettable piece of theatre.
The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black, Black Oil has completely sold out for its run at the Lyceum, but there is still a chance to see it at Majesty’s Theatre – Aberdeen, Eden Court Theatre – Inverness and Citizens Theatre – Glasgow.