The National Theatre of Scotland production of John McGrath’s 1973 work, The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black, Black Oil, was the best live show I have ever seen. Here’s why:
When we entered into the Eden Court theatre, the entire cast was onstage, playing various folk instruments ranging from a guitar to an upright bass to an accordion to a cello to a harmonica to the clapping of hands. Immediately, one gets the feeling that this is a community show — one put on by friends, for friends. Every actor is engaged fully in the music they’re playing, smiling, laughing, singing and dancing along. There is no pretense, no capital-T theatre about the pre-show: we are set up extraordinarily well for the direct socialist messaging to come.
As if this were not enough, as soon as I finished jotting down the above, an actress came from the stage right up to my seat. She asked me my name, said hers was Jo. She told me that in the second musical number, they’d be singing about mountains, and could she bring me up onstage to be a mountain. I, of course, said yes. She must’ve said my name about a hundred times over the course of the brief interaction, either to ensure it was pronounced like she thought it was pronounced or simply to hammer home on the amiability of the whole experience. Regardless, it’s the best I’ve ever been treated by an actor in any production I’ve attended, and I was sold from the get-go.
The set is cheap-looking on purpose, the costumes made up of clothes that you’d see everyday plus items as simple as top hats or stick-on mustaches. As Dr. Essin said: “More Brechtian than Brecht.” There’s a sign-language interpreter onstage, as well; not off to the side in darkness like past interpreters I’ve seen, but prominently featured in every beat of the show. There’s also an actor in a 7:84 t-shirt, a callback to the original production company which put on McGrath’s show. As this actor explained during intermission (yes, the actors were just walking around like normal folks during intermission), “Seven percent of the population owned eighty-four percent of the wealth. And it’s worse today.” The first number they perform, they invite all members of the audience to dance with them onstage. Dr. Essin was pulled in by none other than the director of this production himself. This is what theatre should do — this is how theatre should be done. Not in English classes with magnifying glasses, but with real, live, kind, talented people.
Next was the song “For These Are My Mountains” — or rather, the first iteration of this song, which would become a motif throughout the show. After three verses or so, as though it were planned, Jo and I made a split second of eye contact, and she rushed up to Row F to grab me. I walked with her onto the stage, and then onto a higher stage. She had me crouch down and put my head on the ground, and then she threw a green blanket over me. I’m told that while I was in this compromising position, the cast placed houses on my back and smoke billowed up from around me. After the song concluded, the blanket was whisked off, and Jo and the other actors asked for a round of applause for me as I bowed. It was the least awkward incorporation of audience members on-stage I’ve ever encountered. (Y’all, this was good.)
The first line of the show that sounds like a line in a show is this: “This story has a beginning, a middle, but as yet, no end.” And isn’t it the truth. I wonder whether I perhaps enjoyed the show so much because I agree wholeheartedly with the pro-worker, anti-capitalist philosophy proffered by the show. Certainly, I would have enjoyed it less if I fundamentally disagreed. But in spite of that, the way they tell their story is so filled with conviction, so sincere, that I believe you’d be hard-pressed to find someone that had a net poor time at the show. Every actor is so talented, playing multiple instruments and seemingly endless roles, and singing the whole time, too. And the audience is constantly engaged; one of the most awe-some (in the truest sense) such moments comes in the first act, when all women in the audience are asked to stand. In addition to the impressive portion of the audience which is female (I’d wager 80%), the moment is twisted and wrenched and made unforgettable by the simultaneous reading of all the atrocities committed upon the women of the Cheviot chapter of the history of the Highlands. It’s jaw-dropping. It’s show-stopping. It’s sheer brilliance, a perfect cocktail of McGrath’s original and the present company involved in this production.
There are moments when I cried. The first of these is a man wearing a shawl facing away from the audience while seated in a wooden chair. A man in a top hat lights a match as the lights darken and the “woman” in the chair’s children begin screaming. The man touches the match to the chair, smoke begins to rise, and the woman begins writhing and screaming, as well. A younger woman moves to a microphone stage-left and begins singing some soft soprano tune. And the man in the top hat moves stage-right, and, holding up a paper house, crumples it, destroys it, demolishes it, for all to see. It is one of, if not the best, moment of theatricality I’ve ever witnessed. Can’t do that on a screen!
There are also individual lines which, in a worse show, could each earn the title of “Best Line of the Show.” In no particular order, these include: “The worth of a culture is counted in gold.” “They didn’t do that in the ‘73 version!” “The troubles which are being visited upon YOU are a judgment from God.” The whole of the “God Save the Queen” performed as a mouth-trumpet solo. “Humpty Dumpty was pushed!” “Oh come on, it’s sadder than that.” “We’re more Scottish than the Scotch!” At Leth-Uine (interval in Gaelic), I’d already determined this was the best show I’ve ever seen. Among the mixed-age, nearly all-white crowd, people seemed mostly to agree.
As act two begins, the cast stands with their backs turned to the audience playing kazoos as bagpipes. It’s all so wonderfully absurd, and so horribly ironic, and so masterfully performed. The next beat sees a man playing an English recruiter invite the audience to enlist in the Army. This was probably the worst-executed segment of the show, but, when you have to rely on an audience understanding a show as they experience it for the first time, you’re bound to get that, I guess. The goal is, it would seem, for only one member of the audience to successfully enlist in the Army — the awkwardness, then, came from the additional audience members who, having such a good time at the show, thought also to enlist after the first one did so. I’m not quite sure how to fix the issues here, but then again, just like the few messed-up lines delivered on the stage, it didn’t really detract that much from anything. Act two also contains a far greater emphasis on Gaelic as a cultural foundation than act one, with the cast admitting, “To be honest, aside from Calum, none of us in the cast even speak it.” And then, to my amazement and joy, Calum, in Gaelic, asks who in the audience speaks it, too. And then, for two or three minutes, he has a conversation with two audience members entirely in Gaelic. We are forced outside in the middle of a show in the most impactful and interesting way possible. Phenomenal moments like these weave together a phenomenal show.
The American comes out for the Oil chapter of the Highlands history. He says “Howdy, y’all,” walks with a swagger, and brings with him the first iteration of electric guitar into the show. It’s a somewhat hackneyed yet nevertheless spot-on capture of American ego overseas, and the she-bop song where the backup girls sing “Petrole-yum-yum-yum-yum-yum” is the best I’ve ever seen the American Way lampooned. The political energy of the show threatens to burst through the second act, as this American runs through the audience throwing dollars wherever he goes and a small Englishman runs behind him trying to scrape them up. It’s unmissable: “We must organize and fight… for the benefit of everybody!” “Then it was the great sheep — now, it’s the black, black oil.” “Have we learned anything from the clearances?”
The cast raises their fists, the lights cut, and I’m immediately up on my feet. The audience gives them a partial standing ovation — far less than deserved, but still a partial standing ovation. On the way out, I hear a woman say “That was my favorite thing I’ve ever seen.” Another man says “That was very good, but it’s never going to be as good as the original.” Dr. Essin says “That’s the best piece of political theatre I’ve ever seen.” David Mamet said not to use theatre to try to teach anything, because if you do, you’re missing the point. I say: David Mamet is wrong. I learned about a tragedy I would’ve never had a clue about and had an amazingly entertaining time and felt community build between me and a bunch of Scottish strangers and was sober and awake for the whole thing. This show was the best theatrical experience I’ve ever had, and it made our entire journey to Inverness worth it.
P.S. During interval, the director of the show came up to Dr. Essin to tell us he and the cast would be at Hootananny (a local Scottish bar) after the show if we would like to join them to talk about theatre. I was so excited I almost forgot there was a whole other act to go. I rushed to the bar after the show ended, and I sat in Hootananny for 75 minutes, till 11:15 PM. They never came. What does this say about political theatre? I’m not sure. But for now, I forgive them: they’ve already given me a greater theatrical gift than I’ve ever before received. That ought to be enough.