Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Joe Douglas - The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil

Joe Douglas
was "Minus ten," when a rough-shod fusion of ceilidh and popular drama
knitted
together as something called The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black
Oil began a Highland charge around the nation's village halls in 1973 that would
go on to redefine Scottish theatre as we now know it.

In the forty-two years
since, John McGrath and his 7:84 Theatre Company's melding of music hall and
political commentary has become an iconic benchmark of how theatre can fuse
radical intent with populist heart in a way that has trickled down to the
National Theatre of Scotland's equally seminal production of Black Watch and
beyond.

McGrath's original production of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black,
Black Oil featured now well known names including John Bett, Bill Paterson and
Alex Norton in a cast that also included McGrath's actress wife, Elizabeth
MacLennan, her brother David, folk singer Dolina MacLennan and fiddler Allan
Ross.

The show more or less invented Scotland's small-scale touring theatre
circuit, inspired David
MacLennan and Dave Anderson's more rock-based radical
music theatre group, Wildcat, and defined 7:84 right up to its messy end even as
it inspired a generation of working-class audiences and would-be
performers.

While the world has turned upside down several times in the last
four decades, productions of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil have
been few and far between, with the last sighted professional production being
original cast member John Bett's revival for Wildcat taking place in a marquee
on The Meadows during the 1991 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

All of which points
to why Douglas is so keen to stage his brand new look at the show at Dundee Rep
in a production which opens this week.

"I wanted to see it," Douglas
explains. "Reading it's fine, but now, especially, after the referendum and the
General Election, I wanted to breathe life into it. "

Douglas first
discovered McGrath's play while at drama school, where one of his lecturers
talked about its influence. When Douglas moved to Glasgow, the play's influence
hung even heavier when he worked as staff director alongside John Tiffany on the
latter's production of Black Watch.

"I learnt so much from John about the
play's history, and about John McGrath's notion of a good
night out and being
really populist, which John's work totally is as well,” says Douglas. “There are
so many different aspects in the play about what life is like in Scotland, and
it's so fast. John McGrath talked about fast cutting when he was working in TV,
and that's what this is like. It's like a different play every five minutes.
People just don't write like that anymore."

With a team in place that
includes fellow director Graham McLaren on design while composer Aly Macrae
provides the live soundtrack, Douglas approached McGrath's widow and life-long
artistic collaborator, Elizabeth MacLennan, who was key to the creation of The
Cheviot. MacLennan sadly passed away earlier this year, but not before passing
on some sound advice to
Douglas.

"She was so sharp and so insightful,"
Douglas says. "She sounded me out for my politics as much as my theatre, just
making sure everything came from an authentic place. But she was so pleased it
was happening now, and that it was happening in Dundee, where she made her
professional acting debut. I had dreams of dancing with her on the opening
night.”

The roots of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil lies in
The Great Northern Welly Boot Show, the Tom Buchan scripted, co-operatively run
extravaganza about the Upper Clyde Shipyard's work-in that made Billy Connolly a
star a year before.

After spending the 1960s writing for mould-breaking TV
cop show, Z-Cars, Birkenhead born, Oxford educated McGrath wrote plays for
Liverpool's grassroots-based Everyman Theatre, before forming 7:84 – so-named,
as surely any theatre scholar knows, after a figure in a 1966 edition of The
Economist that revealed that just seven per cent of the population owned
eighty-four per cent of the wealth. The company's first show, Trees in the Wind,
played at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1971.

Wishing to extend his
populist ideas to Scots traditions, McGrath co-opted key Welly Boot Show  cast
members Paterson, Bett and Norton alongside designer and future playwright John
Byrne, who would oversee The Cheviot's ingenious pop-up book design.

Even
before The Cheviot appeared, 7:84 were part of a blooming alternative theatre
scene that grew out of the 1960s counter-culture and post 1968 revolutionary
fervour that capitalised on new freedoms following the abolition of the Lord
Chamberlain, who previously had the right to censor  all plays.

While the
likes of The People Show and Ken Campbell's Roadshow and served up various
shades of live art, hippy Happenings or pop culture inspired anarchy, other
companies were more polemically inspired.

Feminist outfits like Monstrous
Regiment and The Sadista Sisters (the latter of whom allegedly
inspired TV
producer Verity Lambert to commission girl band based prime time drama, Rock
Follies, a show which looked and sounded like a piece of fringe theatre) toured
a loose-knit circuit of arts labs, pubs and working men's clubs.

Red Ladder,
Gay Sweatshop, the drag-based Bloolips and a myriad of others including another
7:84 offshoot, Gavin Richards' Belt & Braces company (whose soundtrack record
notably provided the first production credit for future Factory Records sound
sculptor Martin Hannett) and a myriad of others existed on a shoestring fuelled
by a contradiction-embracing stew of hedonism and barricade-jumping
idealism.

In Scotland, while 7:84 and Wildcat defined their era most visibly,
with both becoming major forces before the alternative scene was co-opted by
funding body managerialists demanding a more orthodox way of operating, but
there was plenty of activity elsewhere.

While 7:84 existed with a nominal
hierarchical structure with McGrath as artistic director, other companies
operated co-operatively, with company structures making as much of a
political
statement as the work itself.

At the heart of this attitude was
Edinburgh Playwrights Workshop, which, rather than select work, presented
performed readings of any play that was submitted, with minimal rehearsals
overseen, not
by a director, but by a facilitator and 'outside eye'. Each
reading was followed by a discussion between the cast, audience and writer,
which, again, operated not in a hierarchical Q and A style panel-based affair,
but in a circular fashion, with each person  in the audience speaking in turn or
passing if they so chose.

Early works by the likes of Rona Munro and Peter
Arnott were first aired at EPW, with numerous ad hoc guerrila  companies formed
to take plays on to  full production.

One, Theatre PkF (Peace-keeping Force)
was founded to present the work of George Byatt, whose Prix Italia winning The
Clyde is Red imagined the people of Glasgow walking on water in a hauntingly
evocative expression of people power. Another play, Why Does The Pope Not Come
To Glasgow? (produced in 1981, three years before he did) featured a live score
by Edinburgh post-punk band Fire Engines.  The show's cast included a young firebrand named Tam Dean Burn, who would go on to
form the Workers Theatre Movement before becoming one of the country's leading
actors.

Also involved with EPW and PkF was  future SNP
MSP Lloyd Quinan. Quinan went on to form United Artists Scotland with actor Hugh
Loughlin, with the company scoring a hit with Arnott's The Boxer Benny Lynch
before focusing on work by George Gunn, including Emma, Emma Red and Black,
inspired by the life of anarchist icon Emma Goldman.

With a new generation of
radicalised post-Occupy theatre-makers such as Nic Green, Kieran Hurley and JD
Tauvedin using a multitude of forms to make politically charged theatre, things
seem to
have come full circle.

“I think the play is totally right for now
and feels brand new,” says Douglas of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black
Oil. “Things are very similar now to how they were when the play was first done.
There was the 1979 referendum and Thatcherism to come, and now here we are again
after another referendum and a Tory government in Westminster, so things really
have come full circle.

“You've had things like the National Collective and
all these artists collaborating and combining as a unifying force, which is what
theatre's all about. Some people say you can only really create great art when
there's a Tory government, and I really hope that's not true. Hopefully we're in
a time now that can break that circle.”

The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil, Dundee Rep, September 9-26.
www.dundeerep.co.uk

The Herald, September 8th 2015


ends

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