Brian Ferguson: Black gold in Scottish theatre

IT IS Friday night and the pubs and streets of Dundee are thronged with newly-arrived students enjoying Freshers’ Week festivities. But inside the city’s main theatre there is no question over where the latest buzz on the Scottish arts scene has descended.
The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil  had the makings of a big theatre eventThe Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil  had the makings of a big theatre event
The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil had the makings of a big theatre event

The revival of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil has had the makings of a big theatre event in the cultural calendar ever since it was announced by Dundee Rep in July.

The first full-scale production of John McGrath’s hugely influential play for more than 20 years – and four decades on from its groundbreaking tour of the country – was always likely to attract a lot of attention. The fact that its run is coinciding with the first anniversary of the independence referendum certainly will give it an ever deeper resonance for many of those who see it.

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With a script cleverly updated to reflect the modern-day political and economic landscape in Scotland, it may end up making as much impact as it did the first time around, especially if – like the original – it ends up touring around the country, as already seems inevitable.

But most remarkable of all is that the revival of McGrath’s play is jostling for attention with two other landmark Scottish theatre productions – and is about to be joined by a third.

The Liverpudlian’s play – the revival of which is being directed by another Englishman, Manchester-born Joe Douglas – was widely credited with sparking a rebirth of Scottish theatre in the mid-1970s. With Lanark, playwright David Greig’s new theatrical version of Alasdair Gray’s epic novel, and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, the National Theatre of Scotland’s take on Alan Warner’s cult novel The Sopranos, both packing out the Citizens and Tron theatres in Glasgow, it is tempting to think there is something in the air.

Exactly three years ago dark storm clouds hung over the theatre scene, with many of its key figures locked in a bitter dispute over the way arts agency Creative Scotland was being run.While it has certainly not been in the doldrums, it does feel as if the Scottish theatre world has suddenly come alive.

Each of these shows crackled with energy, ideas, ambition and – most importantly – audience adulation.

It is not just McGrath’s play that is turning full circle. Sat just in front of me in Dundee were Bill Paterson and John Bett, two of Cheviot’s original cast members. Is it just coincidence that four decades on from his breakthrough role, Paterson is about to take the stage again in Scotland in Waiting For Godot – performing for the first time ever with Brian Cox?

Or perhaps, as we approach the tenth anniversary of the National Theatre of Scotland’s first productions, there is something of a golden era of the stage emerging in this country.