“43 years of agitprop stardom”
Popular entertainment is a broad church. It is entertaining (& mildly provocative) when the Union flag is raised above Craigmillar Castle, as it has been these past few days, and – to pursue a theme – there’s the BBC’s Scotland and the Battle for Britain to watch and absorb. And now, from 1973 but fresh from Dundee and fit as a fiddle, comes Tom McGrath’s fabled The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil. From the off you’ll be singing These Are My Mountains and asking yersel, ‘And whose mountains are those, exactly?’
For this is about the land and of its people (& famously of the 7:84 theatre company that brought it across the land to the people). You don’t see the vans but you could just about pack up these actor musicians, their many costumes and their instruments, into two Ford Transits, with room to spare for model crofts, wee sheep, an oil derrick and some fancy digital kit. It’s all highly portable and hugely worth the telling – and the singing and the dancing. The staging, in the Lyceum space, does not lend itself to community theatre but this is still a barnstorming effort.
This is not Land Economy by ceilidh and clàrsach but it’s not far off, which is actually the point, because here’s the old story-on-stage, ingeniously played but plainly told, of the people of Sutherland and Ross-shire being expropriated and displaced by the forces of profit and loss. The sturdy Highlander cannot stand against the combined agency of absent landowner, factor, police and lots of sheep. In fact Porky Highlander (Stephen Bangs) doesn’t stand at all but takes prudent cover behind his women and shoogles off to Canada in a string vest. It’s much the same when it comes to the east coast and Aberdeen with oil, Texaco and Mobil, and company men; and now – to update our scene, as this production cleverly does – there’s the Trump International Golf Links and layoffs on the rigs. And what are the burghers of Edinburgh going to do about that? Hmm, sadly, probably not that much, but we can tap our feet to Texas Jim (Alasdair Macrae), laugh at Jo Freer’s turn as hideous property developer Andy McChuckemup, and wonder what on earth the ghillie (Calum MacDonald) is talking about, because his gaelic is way beyond our ken.
Director Joe Douglas plays the script for what it’s worth, which is still not devalued by 43 years of agitprop stardom. The humour is all there, from panto to banter, as is the braying English accent (Emily Winter, all tweed and Golly!) and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on kazoo. There is also the nastiness and the pity of it: evictions in the face of defiance and protest; loss and frailty; the dignity of labour forced down and out by ‘owners’ who monetise the works, from creel to North Sea platform. Irene Macdougall’s top hatted Loch is as villainous and intractable as her Announcer’s role is friendly and open.
It is a young Bill Paterson who, in the 1974 TV adaptation of The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil, introduces the story of ‘What’s been happening here in the Highlands, a story that has a beginning, a middle, but as yet no end’. Well, conceivably, the Scottish Parliament and land reform might wrap it up, or the price of crude could do it, or – Whisht! – a second vote on independence, but for the time being Dundee Rep is bringing it on just fine.
(That Union Jack at Craigmillar Castle? Sony Pictures is filming Outlander there … )
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 14 September)
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