Thursday, 3 July 2014

David MacLennan – Plays, Politics and Popularity

--> This is a slightly longer and more personal version of the obituary I wrote for The Morning Star. That version can be accessed here.

David MacLennan (June 19, 1948 - June 13, 2014)
I was in Italy when the news came through via a friend on Twitter. David MacLennan, the theatre writer, director and producer, had lost his short battle with Motor Neurone Disease. The co-founder of 7:84 Theatre Company and Wildcat Productions, the man who had been part of the foundation of MayFest, and who created the Play, Pie and a Pint format, who was in a new ascendancy with the National Theatre of Scotland (NToS) commissioning him and David Greig to co-curate The Yes, No, Don't Know, Show, had left us and in particular, left a huge hole at the centre of Scottish Theatre, Political Theatre and Popular Theatre.

I first came across David when Nalgo, one of UNISON's predecessor unions made their first break through in joint working with political theatre. They reunited 7:84 Theatre company co-founders, John McGrath and David by commissioning their production, On the pigs back, in 1983. The show was a street theatre production of typical 7:84/Wildcat wit and political polemic that toured all across Scotland in a double decker bus that doubled as the backdrop! Getting the bus onto ferries to Stornoway and Lerwick was not the least of the problems!

This was part of Nalgo's first major campaign against cuts and sparked a raft of similar union-supported productions with both Wildcat and 7:84 dealing with the politics of the Thatcher years. including Bed Pan Alley sponsored by NUPE. It also included Nalgo's sponsorship of The Steamie which opened at a disused public wash house in Govan, one of my favourite venues! Ultimately, these initiatives also led to the establishment of MayFest in 1983, an arts festival based on trade union MayDay celebrations. Typically David (and his then wife Ferelith Lean) were in at the start of this too!

David's (and Wildcat's) uncompromising, if extremely humorous, politics – they produced plays on the Miners’ Strike, Ireland and Rock and Roll! - eventually led to a falling out with the then Scottish Arts Council, and funding was withdrawn. Despite a lengthy campaign, it was the end for Wildcat. MayFest too, shut after a different funder withdrew support (for different reasons).

After some years on individual projects and commissions, David launched another innovative and popular initiative. Entrepreneur Colin Beattie's new bar and venue, Oran Mor, was looking for artistic projects to fill its cavernous spaces! And A Play, a Pie and a Pint was born! This format, allowing people to leave work, have a drink and a bite to eat and see a short play - all in the space of a lunch hour - quickly established itself in a completely commercial environment. Spin-offs to both other venues, and other art forms (a Cocktail, a Canapé, and a Concerto, anyone?) showed its versatility, and ultimately the idea of short, popular plays in non standard venues was taken up by the NToS itself in its Five Minute Theatre initiatives.

Although now successful commercially, David's political commitment was maintained right till the end. He addressed one of the first Morning Star cultural events in Scotland, shortly after the success of A Play, A Pie & A Pint. He introduced himself as a 'convinced Marxist'! His final project - co-curating the Yes, No, Don't Know Show - involved a series of 5 minute plays all dealing with the current referendum on Scottish Independence, (David's 'No' view, being balanced by David Greig's 'Yes' one!)

Political, yes, but not didactic, David knew the need to entertain was part of the production. In John McGrath, his brother-in-law's phrase, the production had to offer an audience, 'A good night out', if it was to connect politically.

His vision, and the ability to sense a successful theatre idea, kept with him from The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil, 7:84 Scotland's magnificent opener (from a film of which there is a rare shot of a MacLennan appearance on stage!) through his other joint collaborations (with Dave Anderson) in Wildcat, right up to the hugely successful Play, Pie and Pint, series. This last has been copied all over the world. It would be a fitting tribute, were David's political ideas similarly distributed! The story, as yet, has no end.

David’s loss is keenly felt by the Scottish theatre community, the many colleagues who worked with him and the close friends he had, but the biggest loss will be to his wife, Juliet and their son Shane. My sympathy goes out to them both.


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