JOHN McGrath's great 1973 political play, The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil is hitting the road again in its first professional tour in more than 20 years.
Dundee Rep Ensemble's tour starts at Dundee Rep Theatre from August 31 to September 10 and will play in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness and Glasgow. Director Joe Douglas says he hopes that audiences will find that McGrath's work "still packs a punch."
The play, which was originally staged to great acclaim by the theatre company 7:84 Scotland, looks at the exploitation of the Highlands, first through the Clearances and later in the name of the North Sea oil boom.
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Here, with the help of Douglas, we look at just some of the great political stage dramas that have helped shape the way we think.
THE TROJAN WOMEN
Euripides's' great anti-war classic, written in 415 BC, continues to speak to us. "Euripides wrote the play ... as an anti-war protest against the Athenians’ brutal capture of the neutral island of Melos; they slaughtered all the men and sold the women and children into slavery," according to Charlotte Eager, co-founder of the Syria Trojan Women Project, which involves drama therapy for Syrian refugees. A new play, Queens of Syria, a modern retelling of Euripides's anti-war classic (and of which Eager is the Originating Producer), explores themes of loss and exile and has received considerable acclaim. "The ancient Greek plays - Medea, The Trojan Women - are all really political," says Joe Douglas. "All of these big stories speak to the politics of the time, and still do."
AS theatre director Lindsay Posner wrote of Shakespeare's classic when he selected his six best political plays: "Richard III is probably the greatest-ever dissection and portrait of a tyrant. It charts the character of Richard as a psychopath rising to power, sowing the seeds of his own undoing. It’s also a dissection of realpolitik: you can stage it in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in the White House, in Whitehall." Adds Joe Douglas: "Hamlet is a really political play, too - it often gets lost amongst all the soliloquies, but it is about a power struggle."
AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE
HENRIK Ibsen's drama dates from 1892 but remains remarkably relevant at a time when whistleblowers have become such a regular feature of corporate and political life. Dr Stockmann (played by Hugh Bonneville in a recent revival at the Chichester Festival) is the chief medical officer at a spa who discovers that the town’s baths are contaminated and demands full disclosure. But his actions come at considerable personal cost.
MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN
THE title role in Bertolt Brecht's great play has been taken by actors of such towering stature as Fiona Shaw and, at the Citizens Theatre in 1990, Glenda Jackson. "Mother Courage is a dogged survivor in times of hardship and tragedy," noted our sister paper, The Herald, "and Jackson seems ideal for the role." Mother Courage tries to eke out a living during the Thirty Years' war (1618-1648) in the face of overwhelmingly bleak odds. Playwright Tony Kushner, who wrote a translation of the play a decade ago, observes that the play "places us in judgment of the actions of a woman who inhabits a universe defined by war, who often makes calamitous choices; but her choices are unbearably hard, and sometimes all but impossible. She refuses to understand the nature of her tragic circumstances; she is afraid that looking back will weaken her." Says Douglas: "Brecht's shadow looms large over German theatre, even today."
ARTHUR Miller's classic American drama is ostensibly about the mass hysteria surrounding the witch-hunts in Salem during the 17th century but is also a compelling parable about the notorious McCarthyite 'Red menace' witch-hunts of the 1950s - it has become a byword for political repression. "Arthur Miller was very political in his day and is still highly pertinent, " says Douglas. The Crucible is, in the verdict of theatre director Lindsay Posner "a remarkable play about betrayal and the nature of truth."
MY NAME IS RACHEL CORRIE
RACHEL Corrie was a 23-year-old American peace activist who was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza, in March 2003, while she was seeking to protect the home of a Palestinian family from demolition. A one-woman play based on her diaries and emails edited by the late Alan Rickman and the Guardian journalist Katharine Viner, it has become widely admired. The Guardian's theatre critic Michael Billington said in 2005 that it was "a jolting reminder of the daily realities of Palestinian life and a portrait of a remarkable woman who tried to alleviate suffering." For the Jerusalem Post, however, it rivalled "Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in its antipathy toward the people of Israel."
ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST
DARIO Fo, who, aged 90, is still with us, won the Nobel prize for literature in 1997 in recognition of his vivid work for the theatre. This play, from 1970, has lost none of its power. It centres on the death in police custody of an innocent man, Giuseppe “Pino” Pinelli. "Only a playwright with a clown’s sense of the tragic and the absurd could have turned the death of Pinelli into a piece of knockabout theatre," one critic observed earlier this year. "The play is madcap on the surface but grippingly serious underneath."
THE ROMANS IN BRITAIN
A RIVETING and shocking piece of theatre in 1980 by Howard Brenton. A scene depicting male rape led to charges of gross indecency being brought in a private prosecution against the play's director, Michael Bogdanov by Mary Whitehouse. (The case was later halted, with both sides claiming victory). The play itself cleverly juxtaposed Caesar's invasion of Britain with the British presence in Northern Ireland. When it was revived in 2006 Brenton expressed the hope that audiences might detect other contemporary parallels. "Is America our Rome? The Trinovantes, a powerful tribe in what is now Essex and Suffolk, were in an abject alliance with the Romans, just as we are with Washington today. All the way from here to the Iraq-Iran border, an imperial power is barging around the world believing that it alone holds the keys of "civilisation", as dangerous as Caesar's legions."
JOE Douglas was struck by the harrowing power of this American drama, when it was staged at the Edinburgh Fringe a few years ago. "Extraordinary" is his verdict. Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank's documentary play is based on the cases of six wrongly-convicted inhabitants of Death Row and uses their own words.
THE late Sarah Kane's 1995 debut was mired in controversy for its sexual and violent content but, once the smoke had cleared, the play came to be seen as, in the words of one critic, a play with a fine, moral purpose. Speaking of Kane and other 'in-you-face' enfant terribles of the 1990s, such as Mark Ravenhill, Douglas says: "They were very political. There's a 'real, angry shout' about who theatre is for and who needs to be represented on the stage, and about how humanity is represented."
Cora Bissett's life-affirming play, based on a true story, is about a group of seven Drumchapel High schoolgirls who campaign with vigour and determination on behalf of a friend who, with her asylum-seeking family, faces deportation. The musical was also adapted for BBC Scotland, with Gary Lewis as the teenagers' teacher. The play made us think about the plight faced by migrants. "It has done a great job as a political work, which attracts a popular audience," says Joe Douglas. Bissett said of her play: “I feel the story has a whole new fresh resonance just because of everything that has been happening around it. Not a day goes by when we’re not discussing refugees, asylum seekers and migrants."
THE most celebrated Scottish play of recent years, in many people's opinion. Gregory Burke's play about Scottish soldiers' involvement in the Gulf War has been showered in awards and acclaim. Joe Douglas, who worked as an Associate Director on the National Theatre of Scotland production, said: "It has been a big influence on my production of The Cheviot." He has never forgotten Black Watch's political and emotional impact on those who saw it. "Funnily enough, John Tiffany [Black Watch director] always cites 7:84 as a big influence on Black Watch, so in a sense it is coming full circle."