Live Theatre’s Artistic Director Joe Douglas discusses The Cheviot, The Stag & The Black, Black Oil
Interview with Joe Douglas by David Whetstone
One year into his tenure as artistic director of Newcastle’s Live Theatre, you get the sense Joe Douglas has found his feet. He had a hit in the autumn with Clear White Light, the first production he directed for the company, and with his next is taking what, in one sense at least, might be regarded as a bit of a risk.
How does he think The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil - that most Scottish of plays, exuberantly spanning the country’s history from the Highland Clearances to the oil boom - will go down with North East audiences?
“I really don’t know, to be honest. But I think there’ll be a good response to the fun of it, the music – there’s a strong folk tradition in the North East - and the irreverence. It pokes fun at people in power. What I recognised working in Scotland, and now in Newcastle, is that sense of dislocation from the seat of power, from London and Westminster, and all the wealth, really, which seems focused elsewhere. There’s a sense that people have been left out and left behind. I reckon this play is the Scottish equivalent of the North East’s iconic play Close the Coalhouse Door. That play predates both The Cheviot… and Live Theatre slightly but the mix of radical politics, humour, song and drama will be recognisable to anyone familiar with that play.”
Joe is speaking from Glasgow, specifically a warehouse with rehearsal space used by the National Theatre of Scotland which is co-producing the show along with Live Theatre and Dundee Rep. He is delighted to be reunited with most of the cast - only Reuben Joseph is new - who performed Cheviot… when he directed it in 2015 for the Dundee company of which he was then associate artistic director. The following year it embarked on a tour of middle to large scale theatres around Scotland. So – silly question, perhaps – why is it coming back?
“Because it was so successful. Because there was a sense the politics of it hasn’t gone away. It’s a play and a production that really struck a chord with audiences around Scotland. I was interested in trying to do it on a different scale. This version means we can take it to smaller theatres.
I had conversations with Elizabeth MacLennan (wife of playwright John McGrath, who died in 2002), who looks after the estate, and it was important to her to create a version that works on this scale and can go to some of the venues on the original tour. We’re going to Dornie and District Community Hall on the west coast and Aberdeen Arts Centre where the first tour started in 1973. There will be some people who still remember it.”
That is much less likely to be the case in the North East where the tour is to end in June. Joe can’t recall the play being staged in England, let alone the region that abuts the border with Scotland. But, as well as being optimistic about the audience reception, he believes Cheviot… fits the ethos of Live Theatre which has always championed stories touching on the lives of North East people.
“I guess I thought the themes, the political message and the humour, all of that, would really work well in a space like Live Theatre. There’s something about the fact that this play went off touring in the same year that Live Theatre was founded. It’s a way of looking at what that era and that moment were saying. What was in the air at the time?”
Live Theatre, hosting the only English performances, bill Cheviot… on their website as a story that has “a beginning, a middle but, as yet, no end”. Joe points to unfinished business, saying Scottish independence isn’t going to go away. Before the 2014 referendum people in Berwick, just south of the border, were seriously worried about the implications of having to cross a hardened version of it daily. The Brexit shenanigans only heightens the ongoing uncertainty.
“It’s a real thing,” says Joe. “Hadrian’s Wall starts in Wallsend, near Newcastle, and I think Northumberland was once part of Scotland.”
(That was in the 12th Century, and relatively briefly, but memories linger long - and Northumberland and parts of southern Scotland were once conjoined in the Kingdom of Northumbria.)
Joe, who comes from Stockport, knows the lie of the land. Six months after succeeding Max Roberts as Artistic Director, he declared himself a southerner in a blog post, reasoning: “Newcastle is further north than a whole chunk of Scotland. Look at a map!”
Live Theatre has its friends in the south, the London based National Theatre and Soho Theatre having been co-producers, and it seems sensible to nurture fruitful relationships in the opposite direction but slightly closer to home. Lee Hall’s Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour was an earlier hit for Live Theatre and the National Theatre of Scotland where Joe cut his teeth as a trainee director a little over a decade ago. Having worked hard to learn about Live Theatre and the North East, Joe, now living in Whitley Bay with his wife and their two very young children, says: “It’s taken time but I feel a lot more settled now”. He’s excited, he says, to be “engaging with new work and looking at the new stories coming out”.
Clear White Light, Paul Sirett’s play written around the songs of Alan Hull of Lindisfarne and with a nod to Edgar Allan Poe, is due for a revival in September while Shine, directed by Live’s Graeme Thompson and written and performed by Kema Sikazwe, is a recent hit. Kema came to Newcastle from Zambia at the age of three and is an actor, rapper, singer and writer. His story about growing up in the city’s west end reflects the increasingly multi-cultural nature of life in the city, says Joe. “Presenting life authentically and truthfully is what Live Theatre’s all about.”
Music, you might have noticed, is common to all these productions. No apologies for that from Live’s artistic director. “For me music and theatre are part of the same package. The ancient Greek choruses were sung not spoken and that sense of using music to progress a story is always one I’m going to stick to if I can.”
This new production of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil, a production by National Theatre of Scotland, in association with Live Theatre and Dundee Rep tours Scotland, taking in 12 venues, from May 16 and ends at Live Theatre, Newcastle where it runs from Wednesday 12 to Saturday 22 June with each performance preceded by a ceilidh with the cast and musicians. There is an opportunity to meet director and cast in a FREE Post Show Talk after the 4pm performance on Sunday 16 June and a FREE Post Show Talk after the 7.30pm performance on Tuesday 18 June with Dr Anne Hindley from Newcastle University on how the play uses history to think about the future.
To book tickets for the The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil at Live Theatre which are between £15 - £26, and concessions from £15 call Live Theatre’s Box Office on (0191) 232 1232 or see www.live.org.uk.