Rarely does an evening at the theatre involve dancing. Cèlildh dancing, no less. The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil opens with an invitation to take part. Brave members of the audience storm the floor as the rest of us clap in time with the music. It’s a relaxed beginning which sets the tone for a performance that is interactive and informal. The atmosphere is warm and inviting and everyone quickly enters into the spirit of things. Even though the cast are congenial and the feeling in the room is buoyant, it becomes clear that the message here is a serious one.
The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil tells the story of the Scottish Highlands. Written by John McGrath, the play charts the exploitation and commodification of Scotland’s land and resources. In the mid-to-late 18th Century, the Highland Clearances saw rural communities forcibly removed from their homes to make way for the introduction of profitable cheviot sheep. The Highlanders, who fought for their right to stay and protect their livelihood, suffered under the brutality of the law. Women were often at the forefront of the resistance, a fact highlighted through harrowing accounts of violence and injury; fractured skulls, broken bones, death by beating. Finally, the lasting image from the first half is an elderly woman burnt alive in her own home. In drawing attention to these deeply affecting personal narratives, we get a true sense of the scale and horror of depopulation.
Despite its heavy subject matter, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil moves along at a pace. The variety of music breathes life into storytelling as members of the multi-talented ensemble swap between instruments (and languages!) with impressive dexterity. In the second half, the focus shifts to the North Sea oil. And as much as there’s an emphasis on history, the production is also forward-looking. References to the current political climate and renewable energy prompt questions about an uncertain environmental future under Capitalism. Joe Douglas’ direction keeps serious politics at the forefront but allows it to remain a celebratory piece about community and heritage and belonging. I’m sure that the raucousness of the format and the occasional pantomime ‘he’s behind you’ might be off-putting for some. Personally, I think that’s part of its authenticity and charm. The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil is rough around the edges, but all the better for it.
The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil is playing at Live Theatre until 22 June. For more information and tickets, visit the Live Theatre website.