Born March 16th 1938; died June 23rd 2015.
Elizabeth MacLennan, who has died aged 77 following a short illness, was an actress of great passion, whose presence on stage and screen demanded attention. As one of the co-founders with John McGrath and her youngest brother David MacLennan of 7:84 Theatre Company, who blazed a trail touring the Highlands in the now seminal 1973 production of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil, she was also at the vanguard of a theatrical revolution. The resonances of this are currently influencing a brand new generation of politicised theatre-makers in the face of the business of bad government.
In partnership with her life-long personal and professional comrade and soul-mate McGrath, MacLennan was at the forefront of applying traditional art-forms to make serious political and theatrical points that created a new form of ceilidh theatre. With McGrath and MacLennan serving as each other's inspiration, MacLennan appeared in many of 7:84's defining works, many written or directed by McGrath. As well as The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil, MacLennan took the lead in Little Red Hen, Men Should Weep and Blood Red Roses, reviving her role in the latter in a three-part TV version of the play produced by McGrath's Freeway Films for Channel 4.
Of Men Should Weep, Nadine Holdsworth recounts in The Cambridge History of British Theatre Volume 3, how, following a run of 7:84's revival of Ena Lamont Stewart's then largely forgotten masterpiece at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow as part of 7:84's Clydebuilt season of neglected working-class plays, it was performed at a benefit show for striking NHS workers. After the show, MacLennan, who had played Maggie, the heroic tenement matriarch attempting to keep a family together in the thick of the 1930s depression, made a speech appealing to the audience to learn from history and unite behind the Labour movement.
Holdsworth quotes MacLennan saying that “it is well to remember that the advances in Health and Welfare – albeit inadequate – that have been achieved since the Thirties were due to the unremitting and successful struggle of the Labour Movement...Today's vicious Tory government is intent on dismantling all that...We will not accept this...We will not go back to the 1930s.”
More than thirty years on, the face of the Labour movement may have shifted, but, coming from a doctor's daughter like MacLennan, her argument remains as vital today as it did then.
Elizabeth Margaret Ross MacLennan was born in Glasgow, one of four children to Hector, an eminent gynaecologist, and Isobel, a leading obstetrician. MacLennan grew up in Glasgow and in the Highlands, where the family spent their summers in Rogart in Sutherland. She studied music, then read Modern History at Oxford University. It was here she met John McGrath, and the couple were together thereafter, marrying in 1962.
While her siblings Robert and Kenneth moved into politics and business, with her brother Robert going on to become leader of the SDP while her other brother Kenneth became a successful businessman, MacLennan went on to train as an actor at LAMDA (The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts). They were heady days for a generation exploring new freedoms through the performing arts, and as they became successful in their respective fields, MacLennan and McGrath cut a glamorous and fiercely intelligent dash through the worlds of film, theatre and TV.
Onstage, MacLennan played Molly Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses, Little Boxes, and in Chekhov's The Three Sisters on the West End. On television she appeared in Z-Cars, the pioneeringly realistic police drama which McGrath had co-created, as well as guest roles in Dr Finlay's Casebook, a TV production of Sir Walter Scott's The Heart of Midlothian and assorted one-off roles in the Armchair Theatre, Play of the Week, Television Playhouse and Thursday Theatre strands. By the time MacLennan made a cameo appearance in Hammer's 1971 film, Hands of the Ripper, however, 7:84 had already begun its move away from mainstream theatre.
Founded initially in England following the Birkenhead born McGrath's experiences as a writer at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre, 7:84, which took its name from a 1966 statistic published in The Economist that pointed out how 7% of the UK's population owned 84% of its wealth (a figure much narrower now), produced accessible agit-prop theatre that fused music, text and polemic. The company's first production, Trees in the Wind, played the 1971 Edinburgh Festival Fringe at Cranston Street Hall before going on a tour that would set the tone of things to come.
In 1973, and with a counter-cultural alternative theatre scene in full bloom, 7:84 split into England and Scotland-based companies. In Scotland, MacLennan appeared in The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil alongside the likes of John Bett, Alex Norton and Bill Paterson in a now legendary Highland charge of village halls. It was the beginning of a twenty-five year adventure that took MacLennan and McGrath across Britain, Ireland, Europe and Canada, and from the Outer Hebrides to Tblisi and Cape Breton, often with children Finn, born in 1966, Danny in 1968 and later Kate in 1979, in tow.
The spirit of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil was captured on film by John Mackenzie for Play For Today. This BBC strand was more associated with gritty realism, but here the audience could be seen watching the performance in a way that stayed true to 7:84's rough Brechtian aesthetic.
As well as Little Red Hen (1975), Blood Red Roses (1980) and Lamont Stewart's Men Should Weep (1982), MacLennan performed in The Baby and the Bathwater (1984), the first of several solo pieces by McGrath. With the political tide turning as Thatcherism dominated 1980s Westminster, the then Scottish Arts Council effectively left McGrath and MacLennan with little choice but to remove themselves from the company they had founded.
With Freeway Films, McGrath directed MacLennan in TV versions of Blood Red Roses (1986) and There is A Happy Land (1987), and MacLennan charted her experiences with 7:84 in The Moon Belongs To Everyone: Making Theatre With 7:84 (Methuen, 1990), a volume as significant as McGrath's own two books, A Good Night Out and The Bone Won't Break.
With Freeway Stage, MacLennan appeared in several 'solo epics' by McGrath; Watching For Dolphins (1991); Reading Rigoberta (1994); The Last of the MacEachans (1996) and HyperLynx (2001/2), McGrath's final play before his death in 2002. MacLennan's own play, Wild Raspberries (2002), ushered in an era that saw her explore her own writing. With her first grand-child born in 2003, these included a children's book, Ellie and Granny Mac (Walker, 2009), translated into French as Eliza et ses deux grand-mères, and most recently a collection of poetry, The Fish That Winked (Live Canon, 2013).
MacLennan's death comes a year after the passing of her brother, David,who had diverted from 7:84 early on to start up Wildcat Stage Productions before going on to found A Play, A Pie and A Pint's ongoing strand of lunchtime theatre at Glasgow's Oran Mor venue. With MacLennan and McGrath's daughter Kate now a cutting-edge theatre producer of note, the dynasty looks set to continue.
MacLennan spent her final years in London, where she cherished her growing tribe of grand-children inbetween spending lots of happy times in Greece and the Highlands. The importance of how family and work influenced each other was demonstrated in 2010 when MacLennan reunited with the surviving alumni of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Oil for an event at the National Library of Scotland. The event was part of Curtain UP!, an exhibition celebrating forty years of Scottish theatre. One of the key exhibits was the original pop-up book set for the first tour of The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black Black Oil.
This large-scale construction not only allowed for multiple scene changes, but was portable enough to carry around in the back of a transit van. It was when MacLennan pulled out its inspiration, an actual pop-up book of Pinocchio, however, that the roots of her art, and any people's art, were fully revealed. As she wrote in The Moon Belongs To Everyone, 'If a society destroys its artists it destroys itself. They are reflecting the hopes and fears of our children.'
MacLennan will be cremated at Putney Vale Crematorium in London on July 26, and her ashes buried with John McGrath's at St Callan's in Rogart, Sutherland.
MacLennan is survived by her brothers Robert and Kenneth, her sons Finn and Danny, daughter Kate and seven grand-children.
The Herald, June 29th 2015