Edinburgh was once the Athens of the North, and while it is purely fanciful to imagine that David Greig was out to breathe new life into the old, noble designation of the city when he inaugurated his tenure as artistic director of the Lyceum with a version of The Suppliant Women by Aeschylus, it is a beguiling idea.
Although written some 2,500 years ago, it is hard to think of a work which could have spoken more directly to our own times. Few modern works could have dramatised so movingly the plight of asylum seekers and the dispossessed, or put so forcibly such questions as ‘What is this thing called democracy anyway?’. The depiction of the dilemma facing the Argives when some fifty Egyptian women turn up on their shores, pleading for asylum and protection from the oppressive forces back home which had forced them to take to the seas in search of refuge in a foreign land, could be agit-prop for our time.
We do agit-prop differently now, or at least did before the Arts Councils put a stop to that kind of thing, and we approach the past more gingerly. The production of The Suppliant Women was exhilarating and moving, with a chorus of volunteers perfectly drilled in song and movement, interacting stylishly and intelligently with the few characters – Danaos the father of the women, the King of Argos and the Chorus Leader – which the conventions of his own time allowed Aeschylus to have striding the stage. Greig, who created this version from a translation by Ian Ruffel, employed all the techniques known today as total theatre, but they had all been in evidence in Athenian tragedy in the fifth century BC.
There is, however, another, more intriguing point made by Greig in his programme notes. He points to a striking parallel with the production which had, by chance, preceded Aeschylus on the same stage in Edinburgh. ‘Politics, music, poetry, participation, these are the key themes which I see sitting at the heart of the Lyceum’s work. I couldn’t help notice them all in evidence at (John McGrath’s) The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil last month. As I watched, I felt sure Aeschylus would have recognised the drama taking place.’
Greig has a point. The past is a very familiar country. The two works may come from different worlds but there are similarities not only in content but also in theatrical style. Should Aeschylus be reassessed as fore-runner of McGrath? Can we view this Scottish drama created in the local traditions of music hall or the ceilidh, as imbued with the same spirit as the earliest of all European dramas? All the world’s a stage, as someone said, but is it the same stage? The two plays display a shared ethical fervour, a desperate optimism of the will, a mixture of hope and charity, a sense that the stage and the stalls are part of the one community, a moral imperative felt by the playwright to challenge that community’s attitudes, and an outraged refusal to accept political ‘realism’ as the last word in human affairs. How would McGrath have responded to the refugee crisis and Europe’s mean-minded policies towards them, or how would Aeschylus have viewed the destruction of a way of life in the Highlands in the pursuit of wealth? Ah well…
Paradoxically, for reasons which have nothing to do with intrinsic quality or with production values, the Aeschylus play seems fresher than the McGrath. Maybe this is due to nothing more profound than the baggage which those of a certain age bring to their judgement of a revival of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. I happened to be seated next to the actor John Bett, so when Stephen Bangs spoke – tellingly and impeccably – the words of the Minister in the pulpit denouncing those in his flock who had the sinful temerity to oppose the edicts of the laird, I heard Bett’s tones in my ears. Similarly, when Jo Freer slouched on stage as Andy McChuckemup, the Glasgow spiv with grandiose plans to set up an ‘all night chipperama’ where once there was ‘hee-haw but scenery’, she spoke with appropriate comic cadences, but my ears were ringing with the clipped accents of Bill Paterson all those years ago.
There is no greater mismatch than the tussle between humans and ghosts, especially when the humans are actors on stage producing their version of a play and the ghosts those of legendary productions past. Those who saw Peter Brooke’s Midsummer Night’s Dream said they could never view any other production of the play, no matter how meritorious, in the same light, and something of the same occurs to those among us with greying hair who saw the original 7:84 production of John McGrath’s fiery, angry, bitter and funny play away back in 1973. Ah les beaux jours! This is not to make an unfavourable comparison with the revived production, which is excellent.
The programme carries a poignant memoir by Dolina MacLennan, who appeared in that production. While McGrath ‘cajoled us, taught us and miraculously put it all together’, over a three-week period, the company had previously ‘researched, assimilated, rejected, chewed over, composed, argued and laughed’.
Those were the days when co-operative theatre companies were springing up all over Europe, intent on fostering the revolution whose first spark had been struck in Paris in May 1968. Students were still revolting, idealists still marching in protest at the Vietnam war, sit-ins and demonstrations still being staged, and behind the politics were the sybaritic, self-indulgent changes in style, fashion, sexual mores and mindset that became identified with the Sixties. In the 1970s in Scotland, there were several theatre companies dedicated to touring, to taking theatre to new territory, to talking in language uncommon on the main stages. They have all been swept away, sometimes by the malice of funding bodies. In that dawn, it may well have been ‘bliss’ to be alive.
It would be easy to say that the mood and the beliefs of the age did not last, but many of them did and changed society, at least until the bitter days of Thatcherism. McGrath’s drama dealt with real injustices, but he was able to examine current wrongs in a long historical perspective. He had no worry that his audiences were incapable of looking knowledgeably at the past. The educational and cultural collapse that would leave modern youth marooned in the present to an extent never known before was still in the future. The wrong in Scottish history he attacked with this play was the long process of economic exploitation and cultural desertification of the Highlands.
The Cheviot was the ideal representative of a new style of theatre. Aeschylus appealed to a popular audience with high seriousness and poetry, while McGrath chose comedy, mingled with pathos, song and overt denunciation. Like his contemporary Dario Fo in Italy, he had an astonishing knack of marrying euphoria of presentation with seriousness of indignation. Both men were also motivated by a will to cultivate popular theatre, to play to audiences unaccustomed to theatre-going, and to arouse in them both laughter and anger. McGrath’s best book had the title, A Good Night Out, and the provision of entertainment mattered to him, as did the avoidance of any sign of boredom to Fo. Their playwriting was moored to the traditions of their own countries, even when they tackled subjects taken from the headlines of the day.
Honour to Dundee Rep and director Joe Douglas for reviving this play and ensuring that while it talks of the past, as the original did, it also faces the reality of times changed since the writing. McGrath viewed the despoliation of the native culture and life style of the Highlands as occurring in three waves, all brought about by the intrusion of external capital. It all started in 1746, ‘Culloden and all that, when the Highlands were in a bit of a mess’. The mess got worse with the Clearances, when it was found that it would be more profitable to have the land occupied by a new strain of sheep, the Cheviot, than by men and women, later with the arrival of a plutocratic huntin’ and shootin’, leisured class, and finally with the invasion of international oil men.
The historical questions posed by this play are who profits and who loses from this process. Another man would have written a dark, Brechtian piece, but here we open with a ceilidh band, with dancing, with the strains of a cello and of fiddler-actor Alasdair Macrae playing with verve and brio. The key to the whole evening is exuberance, but that is not to say that one mood is maintained throughout. The demands made of the actors as they switch from the farcical to the dramatic and even the tragic are immense, but the change is instantaneous, and invariably successful. The opening number is the kilt-and-haggis kitsch These Are My Mountains, but as the audience joins in a couthy singalong, the baying of sheep takes over and the question emerges spontaneously ñ whose mountains were they and are they?
Poignant Gaelic airs are interspersed with direct readings to the audience detailing the sheer savagery of the evictions of families, with old men and women dragged from their homes to die in the open. There is no moral ambiguity, no suggestion that these events were part of some great historical process, simply a partisan denunciation which requires no greater elaboration than the straight reading from records of what the notorious factor Patrick Sellar actually did. He was charged in Inverness with culpable homicide, but a respectable man like him could never be convicted by a jury of his peers, so he was not.
Violence was not always needed, for as McGrath illustrates, the people in the glens found themselves face to face with the Kirk, the Law and Finance. Those who incarnated these forces are treated with savage irony. It is arresting to be reminded that Harriet Beecher Stowe (Emily Winter), whose Uncle Tom’s Cabin was such a liberating force in America, could have so casually aligned herself with the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland as they cleared peaceful folk from their lands. It seems right that she should be displayed by caricature, and intriguing that this treatment produced the kind of delight from the audience normally experienced in the yells of children in pantomime when the villain is turned into a frog. Lord Selkirk, who masterminded an emigration programme to Canada (had he read Aeschylus at school?) is given the full-blown panto treatment. The point is that this is not a mindless response. Guffaws are allied to a sense of injustice historically righted.
Billy Mack, who arrives in a trunk, makes an effective Queen Victoria, as Graham McLaren’s clever set brings Landseer’s stag into view as a new generation of careless plutocrats arrive to patronise the inhabitants of the glens. The boldest part of the new production is the final section, where new writing was needed to chronicle recent developments in the oil industry. The new satire bites, and while forgotten men like Lord Polworth are still there as types of the obsequious power-broker, the portrayal of Donald Trump with a Mexican companion is expertly done.
This is a play which deserves its status as modern classic. It might not be performed 2,500 years after first production, but it still matters today.