DCSIMG

Obituary: David MacLennan, writer and actor

David MacLennan, who has died aged 65. Picture: TSPL

David MacLennan, who has died aged 65. Picture: TSPL

Born in Glasgow, 19 June 1948; died in Glasgow, 13 June 2014.

With the death of David MacLennan, who died on Friday at the age of 65, a year after he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, Scotland has lost a man who has been described as the “very heart of Scottish theatre”. MacLennan was a co-founder in 1973 of the legendary 7:84 Scotland Theatre Company, and for many years co-director with David Anderson of the radical rock theatre company Wildcat Stage Productions; and in the last decade, he became the inspired and inspiring founder-producer of A Play, A Pie And A Pint, the lunchtime theatre project - based in the crypt of a former Glasgow church - which has presented 337 new plays in ten years, helping to transform the Scottish theatre scene, and winning friends, admirers and imitators worldwide.

David MacLennan was born in Glasgow in 1948, the son of the eminent gynaecologist and obstetrician Hector MacLennan, and his wife Isabel Adam, herself a leading doctor in the field of public health. MacLennan was the youngest of four children, and could easily have been overshadowed by the achievements of his older brothers and sister; Robert MacLennan went on to become a Liberal Democrat MP, Elizabeth MacLennan a well-known actress and the wife of 7:84 Scotland founder John McGrath, and Kenneth MacLennan a successful banker. The family spent wonderful summers with a great-aunt in Rogart, Sutherland; and David developed a lifelong love of fishing, which remained his great relaxation.

From the moment he first glimpsed the power of theatre, though - at a performance of Peter Pan in the King’s, Glasgow, when he was five - he was seized both with a passion for the stage and all its possibilities, and with an impulse to resist the expectations that might have come with his privileged upbringing. He went to prep school at Drumtochty, and then on to Fettes College in Edinburgh, taking part in many school theatre productions. He was more impressed, though, by what he learned at performances of the legendary Five Past Eight variety shows in Glasgow’s Alhambra Theatre, masterminded by the MacLennans’ Glasgow neighbour Jimmy Logan, and by Joan Littlewood’s Oh What A Lovely War!, which he saw in London in 1963. And although he took up a place at Edinburgh University when he left school, he gave up his studies without graduating, in 1969, to become first a dustbin man in Edinburgh - he told his disappointed father he was getting to grips with real life - and then an Acting ASM at the Gardner Theatre in Brighton.

It was the 1973 founding tour of 7:84 Scotland, though - the legendary Highland tour of John McGrath’s The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil - that transformed David MacLennan’s life, as it transformed the lives of so many connected with the show. MacLennan was already immersed in the radical politics of his generation, and had already been working with his brother-in-law and sister on the 7:84 project in England. But McGrath’s great ceilidh play - with its daily topical updates, its determination to bring theatre to audiences in their own communities, and its radical critique of patterns of land ownership and exploitation in the Highlands over two centuries - brought together many of the formative influences in MacLennan’s life, and made radical theatre his vocation.

For the next 25 years, he was involved as a writer, director, and producer with the work first of 7:84 Scotland, then of Wildcat Stage Productions, which he formed with David Anderson in 1978. Wildcat’s aim was to pursue the same radical agenda as 7:84 through shows that were essentially rock musicals; and the output of the company between 1978 and 1998 was prodigious, with MacLennan and Anderson often producing two or three rock operas a year, from The Steamie to Business In The Backyard, on subjects ranging from the threat of nuclear holocaust to the miner’s strike, loan sharks in Clydebank, and American foreign policy in Latin America. In the 1970’s and early 80’s, MacLennan was married to Ferelith Lean, one of the co-founders of Glasgow’s Mayfest, and he became a key figure in the reinvention of Scottish culture in the 1980’s. Then in 1988, after the end of his first marriage, he married the actress Juliet Cadzow; their son Shane was born in 1992.

By the end of the 1990’s, though, the funding climate had turned against Wildcat; its Scottish Arts Council grant was withdrawn in 1998, and MacLennan endured some difficult years of intermittent freelance work. In the autumn of 2004, though - in a completely unexpected and brilliant act of reinvention - he reached an agreement with Glasgow businessman Colin Beattie to start a lunchtime theatre project in the basement of Oran Mor, the old church on the corner of Byres Road and Great Western Road that Beattie was converting into a bar, restaurant and entertainment venue. And within 18 months, thank to its simple formula and MacLennan’s inimitable flair as a producer, A Play, A Pie And A Pint had become a key part of Scotland’s theatrical landscape, commissioning more than 35 new short plays a year from writers as eminent as Liz Lochhead and David Greig as well as from complete newcomers, attracting actors as well known as Robbie Coltrane, David Hayman and Bill Paterson, and - with the internationalism that came easily to MacLennan’s radical generation - forging links with theatres from Dublin to London, Barcelona, and China, in an international network that has seen the Play, Pie and Pint formula being imitated in cities from Moscow to Pittsburgh. When the new National Theatre of Scotland began operations in 2006, A Play A Pie And A Pint became one of its key partners, working with the NTS on international seasons of new work. Neil Murray of the NTS paid tribute to David as one of the company’s most important creative partners, and a constant inspiration.

Murray’s tribute, though, was only one of hundreds made as news of MacLennan’s death began to reach the generations of theatre artists with whom he worked, and to whom he offered his own special combination of well-honed theatrical wisdom and sharp editing skill, matched with infinite generosity, courtesy and kindness. In the last decade of his life, at A Play, A Pie And A Pint, MacLennan found the perfect role to match his skills, nurturing younger artists, encouraging a torrent of new work, and - as the actress and director Cora Bissett remembered in a tribute - “always welcoming the audience as it were into his own front room, with this mischief and sheer joy in just making theatre happen”; and that work, as it continues, will be the memorial David MacLennan would have wanted. He is survived by his wife Juliet and son Shane, by his brothers Robert and Kenneth, by his sister Elizabeth, and by his nieces and nephews, including the theatre producer Kate McGrath. David MacLennan, though, had a far wider family across Scottish theatre and beyond, who will be mourning his passing this weekend; but who, remembering his spirit, will work on, cherishing talent, creating the new.

JOYCE McMILLAN

 

Comments

 
 

Back to the top of the page