Revived and reconfigured with a reduced cast for small-scale Highland touring, the National Theatre of Scotland‘s production of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil has a directness and sense of danger that the 2017 co-production with Dundee Rep lacked.
This version of John McGrath’s ceilidh play feels much closer to 7:84’s original 1973 tour of the Highlands and Islands. The audience is dancing on stage before the start of the show and, thanks to Billy Mack’s comic timing, the pantomime of the early scenes ensures that the fourth wall is rarely present.
Graham McLaren’s design – recycling pieces of old NTS set – has a homespun feel to it – a step up from the pop-up book of the original tour, but much closer to it in aesthetic. The rough-around-the-edges presentation is edgy stuff, allowing the fiercely anti-capitalist politics of the piece to muscle through with a swagger.
For all the fun, which includes gorgeous Gaelic singing from Jo Freer and fine fiddle work from Alasdair Macrae, director Joe Douglas ensures that the seven-strong cast – augmented by British Sign Language interpreter Catherine King, who is integrated into the show for some performances – keeps its politics to the fore.
The story of the displacement of the Highlanders to accommodate the Cheviot sheep, then the hunting lodges of the landed gentry and, from the 1960s onwards, the gifting of Scotland’s oil to international business, is well told.
There is a lot of politics to add 46 years on, however. Douglas integrates 21st-century advancements – political and otherwise – smoothly into the 1973 text, ensuring that this is more than a historical curiosity, But there is still more, beyond a nod to the climate emergency, which could be said. For that, however much this revival is welcome, a new play is needed.