David MacLennan: portrait of a life in theatre

From The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil to A Play, A Pie and A Pint, David MacLennan defined two eras of Scottish theatre, bringing politics to the stage, and the stage to Scotland's working class.

Alan Bissett
27 February 2016

David MacLannan, painted by Sandy Moffat

I first met David MacLennan in 2009 in, of course, the Òran Mór bar. My first thought was: what remarkable clothes!

Being new to theatre, I was unaware of David’s history at first, knowing him only as the flamboyant and jovial host of the immensely popular lunchtime series, A Play, A Pie and a Pint. Having arrived in the West End of Glasgow in 2004, just as Òran Mór was launching David’s initiative, it quickly became part of my cultural diet. I was very much one of the untapped new audience for theatre that David was intending to reach, and that time spent watching plays bloom to life before me – among full, spellbound houses – was one of the reasons why I wanted to be a playwright in the first place, to be part of it. There is just something magical and also very Glaswegian about entering that basement venue in Òran Mór, like going through the wardrobe into Narnia, except with some bevy and a pie.

Afterwards, as anyone who knows Òran Mór understands, the atmosphere spills over into the bar upstairs. Because it’s lunchtime, the punters don’t have babysitters to rush home to, and the actors have acres of time before they have to be in bed. They all merge together in a fuzz of enthusiasm and banter, bonded by the experience they’ve shared downstairs. In a cynical culture which often dismisses “the arts” as pretentious and out of touch, what better advert could there be for the power of theatre to engage, entertain and bring together?

And there, at the centre of everything, used to be David MacLennan, taking pride in his creation, letting the buzz about the shows ignite his smile, moustache wriggling enigmatically, enthusing about new writers, directors and actors, introducing people to each other, audience members and theatre-makers alike, in a way that felt relaxed and open, as though everyone was his guest. As the director Cora Bissett has attested, “David always welcomed the audience as if it were entering his own front room, with this mischief and sheer joy in just making theatre happen.”

That is how A Play, a Pie and a Pint quickly became the beating heart of theatre in Glasgow, pumping talent, ideas, audiences and enthusiasm through the rest of the city. It’s the reason why, after the sad news of David’s passing from motor neurone disease in 2014 had travelled through Scottish theatre, the nation’s most esteemed critic Joyce McMillan was moved to write in the Scotsman of David’s “own special combination of well-honed theatrical wisdom and sharp editing skill, matched with infinite generosity, courtesy and kindness.”

David and I worked together on a number of projects, meaning I was able to see this creative drive and natural gift for theatre from various angles. He was a focused producer – he’d have to be, given the sheer amount of shows for which he was responsible – always asking the right questions about a play, homing in on its essential characteristics, finessing what was possible, realistic and necessary but never at the expense of flair or innovation. Theatre-makers often raise eyebrows at the turnaround period for a play at Òran Mór, but they knew that with David (as with his protégé and replacement, Suzy Armitage) a steadying hand was on the tiller of production, which would guide a show through any kind of turbulence to its premiere. That David could do so with wit, patience and an understanding of the creative process was testament to his vast experience and empathy.

I was also fortunate enough, as an actor, to experience David the director. Not for him the role of swaggering dictator, imposing his will on cattle. His method was to create a space in which actors could experiment, challenge or support each other. David would keenly watch this toing and froing, tracking the tension between the players, allowing the truth of a scene to be brought to light before, at the right moment, applying his directorial seal and moving on. As ever, he empowered other artists – the writer and the actors – to trust themselves.

Perhaps this is because, as a producer, director, writer and actor, David was the complete theatre-man. There was nobody’s job he didn’t understand.

While at Òran Mór, David gathered around himself a younger generation of politicised writers and performers – myself, Davey Anderson (Jnr), A.J. Taudevin, Kieran Hurley, Gary McNair, Kirstin McLean, Catrin Evans, Brian O’Sullivan, Cat Grozier, Joyce Falconer and Sandy Nelson, complemented by Wildcat veterans Dave Anderson (Snr) and George Drennan – then led the way in composing team-written scripts. The Jean-Jacques Rousseau Show (2012), Demons (2013) and The Deficit Show (2014), were rambunctious, socialist cabaret in the style of David’s own 7:84 and Wildcat plays from previous decades, a mode which – given austerity and the new politicisation of Scotland – had come spectacularly back. For a long, Blairite period “agit-prop” had been dismissed as black-and-white moralising. Didactic. Unsophisticated, darling. Thatat all changed in the wake of the banking crash of 2008, as David’s finely-tuned antennae picked this up.

Not only were we being nurtured by David himself, but by the tradition from which he’d come. All of us revered The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, 7:84’s incendiary and iconic 1973 ceilidh play written by John McGrath, in which David performed, and became inspired by the political energy he’d carried into Wildcat with comrade Dave Anderson, then forwards again to A Play, a Pie and a Pint. We experienced the perfect synthesis of mentor, mentees and moment, and I sensed that David – who’d spent years in the wilderness after the Scottish Arts Council cut Wildcat’s funds – had been waiting for this opportunity to pass on the torch he’d kept aflame for over forty years.

The first thing we learned from him was that egos had to be checked at the door. There would be no squabbling over credit, no fighting for one’s own material, no heed paid to individualism. We worked collectively or not at all, for the greater good of the project, and would all be paid the same amount, socialism in action. Given the fractiousness of rehearsal rooms and the vanity of artists, the fact that we produced three team-written shows of high quality without a single cross word was testament to David’s leadership, to the mood music he created.

His sister, Elizabeth, John McGrath’s widow and also a 7:84 member (now, sadly, also deceased) hadn’t been sure about us at first, worried that as Thatcher’s Children we’d be unwilling to commit to the struggle for change. David, having worked with each of us and feeling the wind switch back towards political theatre, trusted us and persuaded her to lend us her own glittering wisdom.

The MacLennans are a fascinating family. David’s accent could hardly have been described as earthy, and his upbringing was one which, to most people, would be regarded as privileged. His parents were both high up in the medical profession and he attended the prestigious Fettes College in Edinburgh. Given this, David and Elizabeth could easily have followed their brother into finance or their parents into medicine. Yet they threw themselves into the unpredictable melee of the arts. David often told of the moment when, as a boy, he’d watched Peter Pan take flight in a production at Glasgow’s King’s Theatre. It made an indelible mark, meaning that creativity would forever define him. Perhaps it also gave him Pan’s rebel soul.

I still find it remarkable that David, with all of his opportunities, left Edinburgh University without graduating, to take up employment as a binman, before going all the way to Canada for manual work in the logging industry. This displayed an extraordinary political commitment – legion are the bohemian lefties who have no idea how working-class people live – but also a sympathy with his fellow humans, a refusal to recognise labourers as some sort of degraded inferiors. In defying his own class background in this way, David showed immense depth of character for his years.

This experience not only enriched David’s politics, but acclimatised him to the cultural tastes of working people. He became sensitive to the kind of art that alienated them and the kind that drew them in. Both he and John McGrath knew that if the working classes were to engage with socialist theatre – a form which was, after all, about them – then the shows had to meet them where they lived, in their own communities. They had to use the grammar of cabaret, comedy and popular song, which are part of working-class traditions, to give people a “good night out”. Thus was born perhaps the greatest of all Scottish plays, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, about the capitalist exploitation of rural Scotland, which toured the smallest and most far-flung venues in the Highlands and Islands, which had a profound effect on the audiences of its day, and which has continued to reverberate through the decades since.

Theatre and politics, especially the intersection between them, would occupy David for the rest of his life. His Òran Mór productions veered all across the dramatic spectrum – from the avant-garde to the broadest of farces, from opera to murder-mystery – but David’s editorial, as it were, was always to be found in the pantomimes, both summer and winter. They reflected not only the Variety tradition so beloved of Glaswegians, gallusness running through them like a current, but were bawdy, Rabelaisian affairs which mercilessly mocked the rich and powerful. David loved all forms of theatre, but crowd-pleasing satire seemed to be his favourite mode of address. At Òran Mór, one would leave a send-up of a fairy tale (given a typically “Glesga” spin) heaving with laughter while under no illusions about who the bad guys were: “Fred the Shreds” and their compliant courtiers in Westminster. After all, as Bertolt Brecht once asked, “Why rob a bank if you can own one?”

In Scotland we live in highly political times. Audiences are receptive again to the message which David had been persevering with all the way through the Nineties and early Noughties, when it seemed an ever more selfish society had stopped listening. The cold winds of austerity are now blowing, however, and the influence of 7:84 and Wildcat is detectable in the political character of much of Scotland’s arts community, and beyond – in the independence movement at large. During and after the referendum, public screenings of the BBC version of The Cheviot were packed and electric affairs, and Dundee Rep’s revival was an enormous critical and popular success. The piece maps itself onto Scotland as easily now as it did in 1973.

This is something about which I know David felt ambivalent. While he was, of course, delighted about the enduring legacy of 7:84, and certainly approved of the consciousness-raising which was happening all around him, David did not support Scottish independence. Some forget the famous speech which Elizabeth made as part of the Cheviot’s premiere before the SNP conference in Oban: “Nationalism is not enough. The enemy of the Scottish people is Scottish capital as much as the foreign exploiter.”

David was no lover of contemporary Britain – its hideous elites, its extremes of wealth and poverty, its extant imperialism – but he was also against the division of the working class on the grounds that nationalism was a distraction from, indeed a danger to, solidarity across borders. This put him at odds with the prevailing mood during the referendum, as most of the Scottish left, including the arts world, backed a Yes vote.

When the collective which David had picked sat down to work on our new projects, the subject of independence was unavoidable. David felt one way; we felt another. There was no conflict about any of this though, no banging of fists or accusation and counter-accusation of “betrayal”, the kind of behaviour which often afflicts the left. Instead, there was respectful discourse and generosity. David trusted us and we trusted him. We were all, first and foremost, progressive. We were just disagreeing on the strategy. He saw the best of the Yes campaign in us and we saw in him the best of the British route towards a better society. The shows themselves, then, became not tub-thumpingly Yes, nor furious denunciations of nationalism, but sat comfortably in between.

There wasn’t much that could’ve persuaded me to vote No, but David came closer than anyone did. A UK based on his vision and peaceable spirit would be a very good place to live.

Last year, our team worked on a fourth political cabaret, To Hell and Back, about the after-effects of the Tory majority and the mood of despair which had settled over the nation. Seeking a name for the group, we settled on the DM Collective, in tribute to David. The show turned out very well, but we definitely felt the loss of David’s astute, encouraging and inspiring presence. It was like the Wailers playing without Bob Marley, or the E-Street Band without Bruce Springsteen.

No-one knows what the future of Scotland will be, but no Scottish “nationalist” who worked with David, or who saw The Cheviot, or felt their political ire inflamed by any of Wildcat’s productions, is ever likely to settle for a nation that does not adhere to his principle that all must be liberated to fulfil their potential, not simply those born rich. In the future that David liked to imagine men and women become masters of their own destiny and the arts have a vital social function: to lend insight into the human condition.

Experience wrought in a Canadian logging factory in the 1960s has had profound echoes.

I do not want to end this tribute, however, on a political note. David was a gentleman in manners and a genius of communication, whose humour, optimism and can-do spirit affected everyone around him. Those invited into his beautiful Park Circus home became immediately aware of the warmth that glowed in the hearth of his family life – his wife Juliet and son Shane nearby with greetings, smiles and conversation – and of the happiness David projected in those final, feisty and productive years of his life. That he was lost too soon, to the motor neurone disease which took his life in June 2014, is a given, but so are his immense bequeathments to our culture. He is unquestionably one of the towering figures of Scottish theatre in the last fifty years, as big in his own way as McGrath himself, his remarkable feat being to transform the landscape not once but twice.

Sandy Moffat’s painting, which we celebrate here today, captures David at ease, surrounded by the signifiers which summarise him: the Cheviot poster, the halo above Òran Mór, and the lochs of Sutherland, which he so dearly loved to fish.

Like everyone else, I very much miss David MacLennan. His passion remained alight to the end, even after his achievements had become indisputable. This tribute must end by noting an irretrievable loss, but David’s magic lingers in the heart of all who knew him, and who endeavour to carry his unique spirit forwards.

This piece first appeared as a pamphlet published by Democratic Left Scotland for the unveiling of Sandy Moffat's portrait of David MacLennan. It is republished with thanks.

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