John McGrath’s 1973 play is a legend in Scottish theatre. It both shocked people into a new awareness of the brutal exploitation of the country’s natural resources and provided a pattern for future national touring. But, for all its iconic status, it is not that often seen, so it seems right that the National Theatre of Scotland – in association with Dundee Rep and Live Theatre, Newcastle – has revived and updated Joe Douglas’s vigorous 2015 production. I got the sense that many in the Inverness audience, like myself, were seeing the play for the first time.
The story it tells, especially in the first half, is truly horrifying. It reminds us of the ruthlessness of the Highland Clearances, which took place roughly from 1750 to 1860, and which showed much of the land depopulated to maximise profits from the sheep trade: women, more than men, provided active resistance but, as houses were burned and heads split open, they could do little against the force of the Duke of Sutherland’s factor, Patrick Sellar. McGrath’s continuing theme is the power of capitalism, and he goes on to show how the Highlands were turned into a popular hunting ground for the Victorian ruling class and how the Scottish people never reaped the benefits of the oil boom that started in 1962.
It is a chastening tale but McGrath had the wit to tell it in popular style. Music is central to the show’s appeal: the evening starts with a Canadian barn dance and includes song sheets and Gaelic ballads, and part of the show takes the form of a ceilidh. The enforced emigration of many Highlanders is also presented in panto terms and the arrival of American entrepreneurs to exploit North Sea oil becomes a Texas hoedown.
Yet, as with Joan Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War, the stylistic gaiety is used to counterpoint the subject’s gravity: the point that really hit me was that the success of the Highland Clearances provided a model for other nations seeking to remove inconvenient native peoples.
Douglas’s production wisely reminds us much has changed since 1973: in particular, this version suggests that oil should stay in the ground and that Scotland should be harnessing its winds and waves to confront the growing climate crisis. But, while it makes sense to refresh the text and while McGrath proved political theatre can embrace popular techniques, there is something a touch hortatory about the show that reminds us of its 1973 origins. It spells out its message – about the evils of international capitalism and the fact that “the people must own the land” – in ways that seem over-insistent in an age that likes to draw its own conclusions.
It is still a buoyant piece of theatre in which the cast of seven – Billy Mack, Jo Freer, Christina Gordon, Alasdair Macrae, Calum MacDonald, Reuben Joseph and Stephen Bangs – switch roles with ease, sing and play a variety of instruments. “Show us your skills,” was McGrath’s original injunction to his actors – and the current touring troupe do just that with great elan. But, while it’s good that the play will get its first-ever English showing in Newcastle, it remains a quintessentially Scottish piece of theatre that did much to explain the nation to itself and change the rules of the game.