Obituary: Elizabeth MacLennan, actress and writer

Born: 16 March, 1938, in Glasgow. Died: 23 June, 2015, in London, aged 77

Elizabeth MacLennan: Actress and writer was one of the family firm behind radical 7:84 theatre company
Elizabeth MacLennan: Actress and writer was one of the family firm behind radical 7:84 theatre company

With the death of Elizabeth MacLennan, who died peacefully in London some months after being diagnosed with leukaemia, the world of theatre and film in Scotland and across the UK loses the last member of the great family trio – Elizabeth MacLennan, her husband John McGrath, and her brother David MacLennan – who founded the 7:84 theatre companies in England and Scotland in the early 1970s.

Their work with 7:84 represented the most radical, thrilling and intellectually persuasive challenge to conventional thinking about theatre – its style, context, purpose and audience – that Britain was to see in the last decades of the 20th century, and had a transforming influence on a whole generation of theatre makers.

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Elizabeth MacLennan was born in Glasgow in 1938, the only daughter and second child of the eminent obstetrician and gynaecologist Hector MacLennan, and his wife, Isabel Adam, herself a leading public health doctor. It was a privileged upbringing, despite wartime deprivations; the family lived in the West End of Glasgow, and Liz and her three brothers spent glorious summers with family in Rogart in Sutherland.

Liz attended the upmarket Laurel Bank girls’ school in Glasgow and at 13 won a scholarship to one of Britain’s leading girls’ boarding schools, Benenden in Kent.

It was when she arrived at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford in 1956, though, that Elizabeth MacLennan’s life really began to take shape. She studied modern history, joined the Experimental Theatre Club, and worked with many future stars, including Dudley Moore. And then in 1958, at the beginning of her final year, she went to a workshop session that involved every-one present keeping their eyes closed throughout, and met writer and director John McGrath, three years her senior, and just out of national service. “In the improvisation session, we did have our eyes shut,” she wrote in her autobiographical study, The Moon Belongs To Everyone. “We seemed to communicate, however.”

After they graduated, the couple moved to London and began to develop their careers; he worked on key 1960s television programmes, including Z Cars, she studied at LAMDA and appeared in theatres from the West End to the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, where she played Masha in Richard Eyre’s legendary 1968 production of The Three Sisters.

Liz MacLennan and John McGrath married in 1962, and their sons Finn and Danny were born in 1966 and 1968. But despite their successful and busy lives, they were increasingly influenced by the revolutionary thinking that swept Europe and the United States in the late 1960s, and dissatisfied with the conventional patterns of production in both theatre and film.

In 1971, they launched the 7:84 company in England, with a specific commitment to tour theatre into working-class communities, where people could feel they “owned” the space, and to adopt a popular performance style that would address audiences directly, rather than relying on traditional “fourth wall” techniques. Then, in 1973, they launched 7:84 Scotland, with the ground-breaking satirical ceilidh show The Cheviot, The Stag, And The Black, Black Oil, about the history of land use and exploitation in the Highlands and Islands. The show exploded on to the Scottish theatre scene like a bombshell of political thought and new theatrical energy, radically changing attitudes to how and where theatre should be presented, and reaching new audiences everywhere it went.

Over the next 15 years, the company went on to create dozens of touring shows, from Little Red Hen – about the life-story of a woman working-class activist – to The Baby And The Bathwater, about the politics of Guatemala. In 1979, Liz MacLennan gave birth to the couple’s third child, Kate, now a theatre producer, and in 1982 they moved their base from London to a flat in Great King Street, Edinburgh, which became a great hub of family and political life, always full of friends from a vast network of international comrades and connections.

It was also in 1982 that McGrath and MacLennan joined forces with the fledgling Mayfest in Glasgow to stage their historic Clydebuilt Season, which set out to restore to public memory a series of largely forgotten plays from the popular Scottish working-class drama of the mid-20th century. The season ended with a remarkable production, by Giles Havergal, of Ena Lamont Stewart’s great tenement tragedy Men Should Weep, in which Mac-Lennan gave a memorable performance as the heroine, Maggie Morrison. If the Clydebuilt Season marked a high point of 7:84’s achievement, though, the company faced difficult times in the 1980s, and in 1988, McGrath was forced by the Scottish Arts Council to resign the artistic directorship of 7:84 Scotland and to return mainly to the world of film and television.

MacLennan, meanwhile, continued to write, to perform, and to raise her family. Her autobiographical history of 7:84, The Moon Belongs to Everyone, was published in 1990, and she also wrote children’s books, and a recent collection of poetry, The Fish That Winked.

In the last decade of McGrath’s life, the couple worked together on three major monologues which Liz MacLennan performed, including McGrath’s final play, Hyperlynx.

After his death in 2002, Liz MacLennan moved back to London, and began to spend several months of each year in Greece; she also cherished her growing tribe of grandchildren, whose company she adored. Even in her Seventies, she remained a sparkling presence, a woman of great energy and beauty who loved to contribute to discussion and debate about life, politics and theatre. At a 7:84 reunion in the National Library of Scotland in 2013, she whisked out of her bag the very pop-up book she had been reading to her young sons when she and McGrath conceived the idea of using a giant pop-up book as the set for The Cheviot, The Stag, And The Black, Black Oil, and last November, she appeared in the memorial performance for her brother David, at the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow.

Elizabeth MacLennan’s life mixed privilege, passion, creative energy and radical politics in a rare and thrilling combination. At its heart, though, stood her mighty partnership with McGrath, and her love for the family that surrounded them, along with the truth that that partnership was not only a marriage but a hugely creative meeting of minds between political comrades and intellectual partners, who went on reading, learning, arguing, campaigning and making theatre together, right to the end.

Elizabeth MacLennan is survived by her brothers Robert and Kenneth, her three children, Finn, Danny and Kate, and her seven much-loved grandchildren. After a funeral in London next month, her ashes will be buried at her beloved Rogart, beside those of John McGrath.