First published in The Times, Tuesday September 22 2015
When John McGrath’s landmark political drama debuted in a small venue in Aberdeen in 1973, the effects of the discovery of North Sea Oil on life in the Highlands were only just beginning to be felt. Forty years on, Joe Douglas’s joyous revival for Dundee Rep subtly updates the script to include references to the independence referendum and the current debate on land ownership, but it’s remarkably faithful to the substance and raucous spirit of the original.
Revolutionary at the time for its mix of polemic and satire, all presented as “a good night out”, the 7:84 company famously toured McGrath’s play around non-traditional venues in the farthest flung corners of Scotland. Although Douglas’s production takes place in the more conventional surrounds of the Rep’s main stage and auditorium, the director and Graham McLaren, the designer, have done an impressive job of recreating the inclusive, “ceilidh play” ambience pioneered by McGrath, with a bar serving drams and several audience members seated at tables on the stage.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
As befits such an atmosphere, the action gets underway in informal style following the rousing warm-up of a Canadian Barn Dance involving members of the audience and the ten-strong ensemble. McGrath’s coruscating look at the turbulent relationship between the people and land of the Highlands begins in 1746 with the onset of the Clearances and its devastating cultural impact, proceeding to the arrival of the shooting estates and on to the UK government’s squandering of wealth garnered from the oil boom.
While the play is unflinching in its depiction of the effects of ruthless capitalism on ordinary lives, from the suppression of the Clans onwards, Douglas never allows the action to get bogged down in angry diatribe, with the overriding tone remaining one of broad satire. Memorable performances include Billy Mack’s Patrick Sellar, brutal factor to the Duke of Sutherland, and Jo Freer’s shifty property developer, Andy McChuckemup, but the show is primarily an ensemble effort, with the versatile cast switching between multiple roles and performing the evocative live soundtrack, created by Alasdair Macrae.
The elegant simplicity of Douglas’s staging coupled to the dynamism of the performances has the desired effect of breaking down the usual audience-performer barriers. Indeed, audience participation, including heckling, dancing and singing along to These Are My Mountains, is practically compulsory. In that spirit, it is to be hoped that this powerful, engaging revival can secure funding to mount a tour, as it deserves to be seen by a much wider audience.