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Oil be back – classic Scottish theatre production The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil returns to play across venues in Inverness, Ullapool and Dornie as John McGrath's play follows original tour of small Highland venues and community halls

By Kyle Walker

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SCOTTISH theatre doesn’t get much more Scottish than The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil.

The late John McGrath’s seminal theatre piece is one of the country’s most celebrated plays – its ceilidh-style storytelling discussing and deconstructing Scotland’s hidden history has made it a beloved text to many theatre lovers.

And this latest tour by National Theatre Scotland and Dundee Rep – following on from its 2016 revival and tour – sees The Cheviot returning to where it all began.

The companies are embarking on a tour of community halls and venues across the country, in the same way that The Cheviot did when it was first performed by the 7:84 Touring Theatre Company.

And for actor Jo Freer – who has been performing the Cheviot since its 2016 revival –returning to the show’s roots “feels right”.

“Weirdly when it was first discussed for tour, we in the cast were all excited that it did the Highland touring and it did the small-scale venues,” she explained.

“And at that time, for whatever reason, the Rep decided that it should play to more people – which was great, it hadn’t been out for 30 odd years so there was a lot of people who wanted to see it. But our desire as a company was that it went to the original places.”

And getting to bring the Cheviot’s story of Scotland – Jo describes it as a “story of capitalism” – to the areas that were directly affected by the historical events Cheviot highlights is a rare thrill for the actor.

The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black, Black Oil. Picture: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black, Black Oil. Picture: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

“It’s a fascinating play to do as an actor because when you are telling a story so directly to an audience that...I know when people go to a theatre they want to see the play, but in this case people want to hear that story.

“Particularly with the beginnings of the story and the tales of the Highland clearances, you’re telling the story of people’s country through them, and that’s a really brilliant thing.

“Especially when we take it up to Shetland and Orkney and Skye and the places that were cleared, and the places that still has scattered stones and ruined crafting settlements – when you’re taking it to those people it’s really on their doorstep, it’s truly their story, a part of their history, maybe a part of their family’s history.”

Jo’s warmth and passion for The Cheviot marks a far cry from her original reaction to reading the text – back in her teenage years. “My initial connection to Cheviot was in my fifth year of Higher Drama – it was a set text – and I hated it!

“Because I didn’t understand it, and the reason I didn’t understand it is because I wasn’t taught any Scottish history so I had nothing, I had no anchor to pin it down to.

“I’ve still got my original script from when I was in fifth year of drama school, it’s still on my bookshelf – it’s very torn and tattered.”

You’re telling the story of people’s country through them, and that’s a really brilliant thing.

For Jo, it took a while to return to that old torn copy of the Cheviot to fully get to grips with it. “I went back to read it maybe 10 years ago. I didn’t know if I was going to be an actor, I didn’t know if I was going to go to drama school, and all that – so then I was like, ‘remember that weird kind of play, that dusty old thing’.

“And at that time, I was an adult starting to make my own decisions about what I thought politically and you know where my thoughts might go to in those places? So when I read it again I connected with it more.

“And then I went to Dundee as part of the ensemble, and Joe happened to be doing the Cheviot as part of that year that I was there. So it wasn’t like ‘Oh wow, I really want to be playing for that show Cheviot because I’ve got such a great connection to it,’ I was just there – I didn’t have an option!

“And it was literally the best thing that I’ve ever been part of!”

The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil comes to Eden Court on Sunday, May 19 and Monday, May 20 before touring around the north – with dates at the Macphail Centre, Ullapool on Tuesday, May 28; and Dornie Village Hall on Wednesday, May 29. For full details, go to www.nationaltheatrescotland.com

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