Saturday, June 14, 2014

R.I.P. David MacLennan

It’s characteristic of David MacLennan, somehow, that the first time I encountered him I was absolutely unaware he was there.

It was only much later I understood he was one of the co-founders of 7:84 and so would not only have been on stage but would have played an incredibly important part of “The Game’s A Bogey”, the first show of theirs I saw and which was to have so profound an influence on my life.

It was their second show, I believe, after “The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil” - a beautiful piece of work about the Clydeside revolutionary, John Maclean, and it moved me to the depths of my being.

The play’s unobtainable now and I cannot quote from it. But I can quote from John Maclean himself; and re-reading his beautiful words reminds me how powerfully they were used in the production:

my contention has always been that capitalism is rotten to its foundations, and must give place to a new society. I had a lecture, the principal heading of which was "Thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not kill", and I pointed out that as a consequence of the robbery that goes on in all civilised countries today, our respective countries have had to keep armies, and that inevitably our armies must clash together. On that and on other grounds, I consider capitalism the most infamous, bloody and evil system that mankind has ever witnessed.”

I was struggling to complete a PhD thesis at the time on Calderón and seventeenth century Spanish drama and it was making less and less sense to me.

What 7:84 were doing at that time opened my eyes to a completely new understanding of what could be achieved thorough theatre.

I can’t say it influenced my writing - at that time I didn’t even know I was going to be a playwright - but it did completely change my life.

It was one of the factors that led me to give up my PhD and step off the escalator of middle class expectations I felt myself trapped on. I became a bus conductor in Anstruther, and then a student nurse in Kirkcaldy, because I wanted to understand what real life was about.

Uncanny to read in Joyce McMillan’s beautiful Scotsman obituary yesterday that David did something similar when he dropped out of Edinburgh University.

He was lucky enough to know exactly what he wanted and so to meet the right people to help him get there.

My path was more tortuous; and he disappeared from my life completely in the intense struggle to establish myself as a writer, bring up my children, and maintain my relationship with my late partner.

We didn’t meet again till 2009, when my “Apple A Day” was put on in Oran Mor and the Traverse. One of the many things I came to love about him as an artistic director was that he was not afraid.

He was not afraid of trusting his own instincts; he was not afraid of failing every once in a while; and he was not afraid of saying no.

All that, and an amazing generosity in him that helped give you courage.

Like so many people, he encouraged me at the beginning of a new career. I’m still amazed that it was him gave me my first job as an actor - in my “Sex, Chips and The Holy Ghost”. He was such a positive presence in rehearsals, and such a source of down to earth wisdom; I remember him sitting at the back in our only rehearsal in the venue. Straightforwardly and without anxiety reminding us to speak loudly and clearly in that place’s difficult acoustic.

Just before the show began, my acting partner would go off to have a fag by the stage door, and I would wait, trying to meditate, trying to compose myself, before David’s always welcome appearance.

I would always tease him about his always immaculate socks, that invariably and miraculously matched his outfit; and he would always laugh and give the credit to Juliet, his wonderful and much loved partner; and then we would take the lift and the labyrinthine passages he was somehow so playfully proud of for the way they secretly led backstage. 

There was an earthed straightforward kindness to him that always gave me comfort; and before I knew it me and the other David, my acting partner, would find ourselves on the unbelievably dark and rickety stairway leading to the stage.

Listening out for his famous introduction to his audience. And yes, this was a splendid time to switch off our mobile phones; and I was struck over and over again by the mutual knowledge, affection and regard between him and his public that I think is at the heart of all successful theatre.

And then we’d be on stage and I’d be calling after him “Mr MacLemon” - my character not being very god with names - to tell him we were cancelling the performance to exorcise the audience.

He took it all in good part, of course; and somehow in my imagination the name has stuck.

Dear Mr. Maclemon. You were such a beautiful man. It makes me cry to think how much I miss you. I know many many people will have cried over you; for you were so deeply and so widely loved.

But somehow I’m not sure you’d want that. What I loved about you most of all was that you believed in pleasing an audience; and doing so in a way that would change the world. Make it better, somehow; even in the smallest of ways.

And you’d want us to keep on doing that.

And I will, Mr. MacLemon. I promise.

I’ll do my best....

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