When a woman called Coralie turned up at Dundee Rep's box office to say that the theatre's next production was about her, the company sat up and took notice. The late Tom McGrath's play, Kora, after all, is set in a Dundee housing estate where a community fight against the local authorities attempts to decamp the residents out of their homes ids led by a powerful matriarchal figure whose home is bursting at the seams with her offspring.
Nicholas Bone, director of the Magnetic North company, who are co-producing Kora with the Rep, and actress Emily Winter, who plays the title role in a play first seen at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre in 1986 before being revived a year later in Dundee, met Coralie. The result was what Bone describes as “a slightly surreal hour, spending time with this woman who Tom met almost thirty years ago, and based this whole play on. It was hearing from her what's true and what's not true in the play, but then you have to put it to one side and carry on working on it without thinking about it.
“She said she has a whole load of friends who didn't know anything about the play, and obviously her life's moved on a lot since it was first done. In the play she had five sons, though in real life she only had four, although she eventually did have another one. There were a couple of big changes Tom made, but she seemed very open to that, and I can imagine her and Tom getting on very well.”
Given its themes and the period it is set and was written in, it's all too fitting that the first day of rehearsals for Bone's revival of Kora was on the day that former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's death was announced.
“That was a bit weird,” Bone admits, “because the play is set over a two-year period between 1982 and 1984, and there's no mention of Thatcher or anything else that was happening in the rest of the country, there's a political edge to it. It's about people trying to take control of their circumstances and their lives and change things, and not succeeding in what they set out to do, but discovering things about themselves. That's something that doesn't change. There are always people trying to change things, and thirty years on, in another recession, it feels like a lot of the same stuff is going on. The bizarre thing for me, being a person of a certain age, discovering that the 1980s is now a period. What was a contemporary play when it was first done is now a period piece.”
McGrath wrote Kora after initially being commissioned to make a BBC TV documentary about women in adversary. McGrath was put on to Coralie and a group of people attempting to execute change in their community. By the time he decided he wanted to make the film about her, however, it had been cancelled, and Kora was re-born as a stage play.
McGrath passed away in 2009 following a mercurial and polymathic career as poet, playwright, pianist and founding director of two of Glasgow's great arts spaces in the form of the Third Eye Centre, which morphed into the CCA, and Glasgow Theatre Club, which became the Tron. Outside of his two best known works, Laurel and Hardy and The Hardman, the latter written with Jimmy Boyle, McGrath's plays have had few revivals.
While McGrath's role as an artistic catalyst has quite rightly been celebrated via the setting up of the Tom McGrath Trust, which gives small amounts of funding to projects which may not sit easily in other funding strands, his importance as a writer himself is something Bone stresses.
“It's partly the work he did with other playwrights,” he says, “but I think it's to do with form. Tom experimented with all these different styles, and I think it's something to do with that experimentation. He brought his influences in music and his background in jazz and poetry really infects his writing, and I think it's that freedom to experiment in form had had an effect on lots of people who worked with him or saw his work.”
Bone and Magnetic North seem as natural a fit for Kora as it does the play being presented in Dundee. When McGrath was still alive, Bone's company ended up producing three new plays by him, The Dream Train, Safe Delivery and the quasi-autobiographical My Old Man. Following Kora and a major revival of The Hardman a couple of years ago, Bone would like to see further neglected gems from McGrath's back catalogue revisited.
While McGrath's science-fiction play, The Android Circuit, and his semi-autobiographical account of the 1960s counter-culture, The Innocent, both spring to mind, Bone would like to see a restaging of McGrath's 1979 epic, Animal. Set in a jungle and with a large cast playing a community of apes, with all the sound-poetry-like array of grunts, squeaks and squawks that entails.
“It would be an extraordinary play to do,” says Bone, “Even now it seems very pertinent about humans and animals, and about society, but it would have to be on such a huge scale, with people being monkeys. It's such an extraordinary conception.”
With such a sprawling back-catalogue, Kora sounds like an uncharacteristically documentary piece for McGrath, a writer who, aside from his enabling role as Scotland's literary director, managed to fuse a love of popular music hall with a 1960s counter-cultural aesthetic, think again.
“Tom's laid this other story on top of it,” Bone reveals, “which it took me a while. The last line of the play is a very unusual way to end on if you read it as a piece of documentary theatre, which is what I was reading it as at first. On first reading it almost seemed like a verbatim piece, which is very different to the music hall theatricality that there is in Tom's other plays. But there was something about the ending, and I did some research, and the penny finally dropped that also there was a character from Greek mythology, who was goddess of the cornfield, and was this image of fertility. So on one level its a straightforward kitchen-sink play about a woman living in a council flat on a scheme in Dundee, but on another, it's this thing about hope, and that life has to carry on.”
Kora, Dundee Rep, May 21st-June 7th
Tom McGrath – A Literary Life
1960s – Decamping to London, McGrath edited Peace News and International Times, and tread poetry alongside Allen Ginsberg at the Royal Albert Hall.
1972 – Back in Glasgow, McGrath is musical director on The Great Northern Welly Boot Show, which made Billy Connolly a star.
1973 – McGrath becomes the 1st artistic director of the Third Eye Centre.
1976 – McGrath's first play, Laurel and Hardy, premieres at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre.
1978 – Science-fiction play, The Android Circuit, appears.
1979 – McGrath writes The Hardman, based on the life of convicted murderer turned artist, Jimmy Boyle. Animal and The Innocent also premiere.
1986 – Kora.
1987 – McGrath is appointed associate literary Director for Scotland, a post which will eventually sire playwright's Studio Scotland.
1992 – Merlin, a translation (with Ella Wildridge) of Tankred Dorst's two-part epic appears at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh.
1995 – Stones and Ashes, a translation of Quebecois writer Daniel Danis' play, premieres.
2005 – My Old Man, the last of three plays produced by Magnetic North, appears.
The Herald, May 13th 2013