Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Sash - Hector MacMillan on his 1970s classic


One night Hector MacMillan was sitting backstage in the old Pool theatre in Edinburgh with the actors who'd just performed in his play, The Sash. MacMillan was told there were two men in the auditorium who wished to see him. On making his way out front, MacMillan was greeted by what he describes as “two very polite Orange men from Leith, who took issue with the content of the play.”

Given that The Sash looked at inter-familial conflicts on the day of the Orange Order's annual parade in Glasgow, this came as no surprise. The pair had to admit that, while they'd thoroughly enjoyed the play, you would never find anybody like Bill MacWilliam, the monstrous loyalist patriarch at its heart, in the Order itself.

MacMillan hadn't noticed that there were other people lingering in the Pool's tiny shop-front auditorium as well as the two Leithers. Only when a dissenting voice boomed out “like the Reverend Iain Paisley,” according to MacMillan, to interject, did he become aware of their presence.

“Excuse me, sir,” declaimed the man. “There most certainly are men like him.”

Then, turning his attention to MacMillan, “You'll never take that play to Northern Ireland,” he said, “and for that I am very sad.”

“That shut people up,” MacMillan remembers of an incident that occurred in 1973, when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were aflame and sectarianism in Scotland was volatile on both sides of the religious divide.

Whether such strength of feeling will be provoked by the first revival of The Sash in twenty years in a production by Rapture Theatre remains to be seen. What is clear is that, while things have moved on in Northern Ireland, sectarianism is still a huge issue in Scotland and elsewhere.

“I was aware when I wrote it that was a risk,” MacMillan says of his best known of some thirty-odd plays, which include Scots adaptations of Moliere and works for both radio and television as well as the stage. “I warned the company in advance that it was going to be controversial, and when some leading actors started turning it down, I think they realised they had something different.”

MacMillan wrote The Sash after being approached by the BBC to pen an educational drama for young people based around prejudice. Having grown up in the Tollcross district of Glasgow, MacMillan had seen religious intolerance close-up in his neighbourhood. A stint in the army saw him stationed in Omagh during Orange parades season. Curious, he went into town to gauge the atmosphere.

“You could have cut the tension with a knife,” he says. “I'd never known anything like it.”

All of which fed into his twenty minute TV play, set in a folk club where the singing of Scots and Irish songs led to conflict. The level of interest the play garnered encouraged MacMillan to write an adult play, which, as The Sash, became the first two-act play to be produced at The Pool. The production later transferred to the Citizens Theatre, and proved so successful that it was later mounted at Glasgow Pavilion and Hampstead Theatre, while 7:84 Scotland also picked it up. A performance at the Pavilion was filmed in 1974, but never broadcast.

A sequel, The Funeral, which looked at the demise of MacWilliam, appeared in 1988 at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow. A decade on from its predecessor, The Funeral looked at racial prejudice as well as religious intolerance.

“It did very well,” MacMillan says, “but because it dealt with a black character, I think there was a bit of discomfort about some of the language used. I'd been in India, so I knew the truth about what people thought and said.”

While MacMillan has been off radar for several years, he hasn't stopped writing, and at least two plays remain unproduced. He is also planning a book, what he describes as a “resume” of some of the more interesting people he's met over the years. These include a busking violinist who MacMillan encountered in Glasgow when he was employed in his first job as an office boy. One notable trait of the violinist was that he resolutely refused to play on Argyle Street because of what he saw as having acoustics that weren't up to scratch.

“People like this need to be recorded,” MacMillan states.

MacMillan's sense of history extended to a rare public appearance recently at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre at a week-long celebration of the Scottish Society of Playwrights, the organisation set up to provide a forum and collective voice for the country's playwriting community. The Traverse event looked at a different decade on each day, and, given his senior status as Honorary President of the SSP, MacMillan was tasked to introduce and give an overview of the 1970s.

“It was sad in a way,” MacMillan reflects, “because there was only one other writer there who I knew, who was Donald Campbell. My feeling is that an awful lot has been forgotten which shouldn't be. I spoke on the SSP, and why it was necessary for it to exist. I also paid tribute to some of the people who are dead now, but who did really important work.”

As well as playwrights such as Tom Gallacher, MacMillan, cites BBC producer Gordon Emslie, who championed MacMillan's own work, and whose idea it was to incorporate The McCalmans into his radio play The Rising. MacMillan also mentions former director of Dundee Rep, Stephen MacDonald, who directed the same play for the stage/

“He was crucial to what I wanted to do,” MacMillan says. “He took plays of mine that had been turned down by the Citizens and Royal Lyceum Theatres, and was a breath of fresh air for Dundee.”

With The Sash dating from that same exciting era of Scottish drama, what today's audiences will make of the play isn't clear.

“I've no worries about it as a play,” MacMillan affirms, “but what audiences with no direct experience of a very real potential for serious violence on both sides will make of it, I've no idea.
Sectarianism is still there, but it's not as threatening in Scotland as it once was. I'm pleased that the play is now a part of the history of Scottish theatre, but I'd be very happy if the subject was no longer relevant.”

The Sash, Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy, Wednesday-Saturday, then tours.

The Herald, April 23rd 2013

ends

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