A Good Night Out

7:84 and Wildcat.  The 1970’s to the nineties was a golden age, and Scotland an ideal breeding ground, for these two theatre companies in particular. They stand beyond their own times, exemplars of theatre with a credo and a purpose. 

They’re in the pantheon of companies who – thanks to a philosophy, method and ambition beyond mere production and performance – have made a lasting difference to the development of theatre in the 20th century and beyond.

Other examples include Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, the early Abbey Theatre, Dublin, Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, Ariana Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil, Liverpool Everyman and the Citizens’, Glasgow.

The mid 1970’s – my last year at uni.  Major subject: French, minor: Theatre.  It could have been the other way round, so often was I in the theatre studio, producing, directing and performing.

Our tutor announced a visit from a theatre company, 7:84 who were coming to perform John Arden’s Serjeant Musgrave Dances On, set amongst the recently ignited Troubles in Northern Ireland.  Afterwards there was to be a discussion.

Here was everything I held dear.  Left-wing.  Campaigning. Theatre.  Plus, a radical dose of anti-imperialism.  I was in socialist heaven.  Brecht was my champion, but he was dead.  John McGrath was a living hero.

Bright-eyed, with rapt attention, we listened to the discussions, as the 2 Johns wove ideas about the war across the water and taking militant plays to the workers.  Writer Arden told us: Northern Ireland is Britain’s Vietnam, while director McGrath talked about the significance of 7% of the population owning 84% of the wealth.  (Apocryphal maybe, but legend goes that when, in a petrol station, the attendant looked at the sticker on the back of John’s big, old Volvo, he said: Well, there’s no need to boast about it!)

I next met John McGrath 5 years later, in London, whilst researching my post-graduate dissertation (Trade Unions and the Arts – a riveting read!).  He and his wife, Liz MacLennan, were so shrewd in their analyses.  I’d just been appointed at the Citizens’, Glasgow.  From then on, our paths would coincide, often and we became friends.

When I arrived in Scotland, the first show I saw was 7:84’s Joe’s Drum, in Arbroath.  Just before the start, I noticed John handing extra bits of script to Billy Riddoch, who played Joe.  Billy seemed to take it in his stride!

The company was as radical as ever.  I went to all their shows and made them regular bookings to the Citz with a string of new, political shows that filled the house: Swings and Roundabouts; Blood Red Roses, The Catch.  John was brilliant at titles.  His book on popular theatre is called A Good Night Out.

7:84 had already packed the Citz some years before, with one of their most enduring titles: The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil.   Set for another revival in 2020, by the National Theatre of Scotland, Dundee Rep and Live Theatre, Newcastle, this legendary show – part-panto, part-ceilidh, all agitprop – remains a hard-hitting audience pleaser nearly 50 years after it was created.

Better yet, 7:84 begat Wildcat Stage Productions.  Liz’s brother, David MacLennan (John’s brother-in-arms, as well as in-law) and Dave Anderson wanted to do more musical productions.  Still contemporary politics, but with numbers. 

And what numbers.  Heart-rending compositions, intricate harmonies and smart, punchy lyrics by Anderson and David McNiven.  The new company was off to a flying start.  Such versatility: actors picking up different instruments with alacrity.  It’s great to see the Wildcat habit – multi-talented performers switching acting, music and other skills – returning to stages across Scotland.

Wildcat, too, became a welcome extension to the Citizens’ seasons, with audiences hungry for works like The Barmecide Feast (food poverty); Any Minute Now (nuclear arms); Harmony Row (poll tax); Dead Liberty (miners’ strike) and their greatest box-office hit, also just revived for the umpteenth time, The Steamie. 

The heart of these two companies, and fellow-travellers down south like Red Ladder and Belt & Braces, was politics.  To paraphrase Karl Marx, conventional theatre only interpreted the world, the point – for 7:84 and Wildcat – was to change it.  They jokingly referred to their doctrine as Marxist-MacLennanist.

Both companies spawned a plethora of Scottish talent: Billy Paterson, John Bett, Alec Norton, Elaine C Smith, Terry Neason, George Drennan, Sandy Nelson, Susan Nisbett, Katy Murphy and Peter Mullan, to name only a few.

In the early 1980’s, the relationship between 7:84 and the Citizens’ grew closer.  Their styles were very different, but the aim – distinctive work for a broader audience – was similar. As Robert David MacDonald, one of the Citz directors, put it:  We march to the beat of the same drum – in opposite directions!

The Citz’s creed of artistic originality rested on a ruthless zeal for technical excellence.  7:84 and Wildcat were more focussed on ideology, politics and the message.  John was a charming mixture of towering intellect and last-minute lash-up. 

Giles Havergal had actually worked with John on plays at Oxford University, 30 years earlier.  McGrath had always staged new plays but wanted 7:84 to revisit some vintage Clydebuilt plays.  He knew Citz versions of Sean O’Casey, Brecht and Shaw and asked Giles to direct a 1947 play by Ena Lamont Stewart.

The result was another landmark production, Men Should Weep.  A searing, funny tale of 1930’s poverty in the east end of Glasgow, it’s led by its female characters.  It played the Citizens’ more than once, to full houses.  It’s become yet another frequently revived piece from the 7:84/Wildcat repertoire.

And today?  Everything – funding priorities, touring opportunities and politics – has changed since the days of 7:84 and Wildcat.  It would be naïve to await the return of theatre companies like them.

And yet injustice and inequality have, if anything, got worse.  What precisely are the equivalents of 7% and 84% nowadays?

I was encouraged recently to see Fibres, toured by Stellar Quines and the Citizens’.  Billed a story of love, laughter and the untold legacy of Glasgow’s shipyards, it’s a campaigning piece.  It attacks the abuse of asbestos by industry and shows how it still affects not just the men who worked with it, but also the women who lived with them and handled their clothes.

There is no shortage of issues, nor of radical groups, especially women’s companies, determined to force long-overdue changes to the pale, male outlook of theatre. 

What, in 2020, is the role of political theatre?  If so, what forms is it taking – and where is it?  Please send your own responses!

by Paul BassettGlasgow, January 2020.

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com


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