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Sharman Macdonald - She Town

Dundee is a long way from Cheltenham Ladies College, and not just in 
geographical terms either. Yet, without such an august institution 
commissioning playwright Sharman Macdonald to write a new work, it's 
unlikely that her play now known as She Town would be opening in a 
brand new production at Dundee Rep this week.

“It was the suggestion of my very first literary agent that I write 
something for them,” the Glasgow-born actor turned writer says. “I said 
that I’ve only got one idea, and they’re not going to want to do that.”

Given that that idea involved a cast of forty playing a community of 
vocal working-class women in 1930s Dundee, you can see her point. 
Especially as the play was set against a backdrop of social and 
political strife, with intimations of the Spanish Civil War en route.

“I was reading an economics book, and there was this section in it 
about a society of women in Dundee during the depression, which I’d 
never heard of. There was a sentence in the book that said something 
about how freedom can disappear before you even know it’s there, and I 
thought, if I know nothing about it, then maybe no-one else does 
either. I was reading about Paul Robeson at the same time as well, and 
his role in the Spanish Civil War, and it turned out he sang at the 
Hall, so the two things just sort of came together.”

That play became Lu Lah, Lu Lah, performed at Cheltenham in 2010.

“It was extraordinary,” Macdonald gushes. “The cast not only had to 
conquer the Dundee accent, but they had to try and understand what was 
going on in this entire society and the Spanish Civil War and all of 
that as well.”

Macdonald passed the script of Lu Lah, Lu Lah to her next door 
neighbour, who knew Dundee Rep’s then artistic director James Brining. 
Brining immediately recognised the potential of doing such a big, 
community-based work set on his own doorstep, and earmarked it for a 

“That gave me the chance to rewrite,” Macdonald says. “Paul Robeson had 
never been present onstage, but I thought I’d put him on. But then 
Dundee said, no, we really like the fact that there are no men onstage. 
So all the men are present, but in the minds of the women.”

The night before we talk, it was the red carpet premiere of the new 
film version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, starring Macdonald’s superstar 
daughter Keira Knightley in the title role. This morning, however, 
Macdonald is distracted by the domestic mundanities of dealing with the 
dishwasher man.

“It’s totally chaotic,” says Macdonald, “but he says there’s absolutely 
nothing wrong with the dish-washer, and has just disappeared. Oh, goody 
goody, but I wish there was something wrong with it.”

There’s an inherent girlishness about Macdonald when she talks like 
this. It can see her get as excited about the peccadilloes of her 
dishwasher as she does about her latest line of artistic inquiry. This 
sense of brio has sat alongside an accompanying dreaminess ever since 
Macdonald’s first play, coming of age drama When I Was A Girl I Used To 
Scream and Shout, became a hit in 1984.That play was written out of 
Macdonald's desire to quit performing to have a second child with actor 
husband Will Knightley.

While a second child duly followed in the shape of Ms Knightley, so did 
other plays, including When We Were Women and Sea Urchins followed in 
steady succession at theatres including the  Bush, the Cottesloe and 
the Royal Court. In the mid-1990s, another play, The Winter Guest, was 
picked up by actor Alan Rickman, who directed the big-screen version 
starring real life mother and daughter Phyllida Law and Emma Thompson.

As well as being able to see her play in the city it's set in, the 
Dundee Rep production of She Town will also provide Macdonald with 
something of a reunion with director Jemima Levick. The last new play 
Macdonald had produced in Scotland was The Girl With Red Hair, a 
co-production between Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre and the Bush 
produced in 2005. While the production's main director was Bush veteran 
Mike Bradwell, Levick assisted. Since then, of course, Levick has gone 
on to carve out a brilliant career of her own, and is now joint 
artistic director of Dundee Rep. Among her many triumphs in Dundee, 
Levick even directed a version of Anna Karenina.

While The Girl With Red Hair was playing in Edinburgh and London, 
Macdonald was working on the screenplay for what became The Edge of 
Love, which looked at the women who orbited around poet Dylan Thomas. 
Knightly played Vera Phillips, Thomas’ one time teenage sweetheart who 
later formed an unlikely friendship with Thomas’ wife, Caitlin, played 
in the film by Sienna Miller.

Since then, Macdonald has spent her time “writing screenplays that 
weren’t done, but still might be.”

One of these looked again at the Spanish Civil War, and is, in 
Macdonald’s own estimation, “the best thing I’ve ever done.”

The Spanish Civil War is a subject that clearly fascinates Macdonald.

“There’s something about its complexity,” she says, “and the fact that 
those who fought thought that if they stayed they could get rid of 
Franco, the sheer bravery of them. There’s also the tragedy of the left 
fragmenting, while the right stays as a cohesive whole. I suppose it’s 
because I don’t understand all those complexities that I keep on going 
back to it, just so I can try and understand it.”

Despite such passion, Macdonald remains pragmatic about her unproduced 

“Things have their time,” she says. “It was so nearly done, but it was 
superseded by something else that came along on the same subject. 
That’s the luck of the draw. But that doesn’t mean I won’t write about 
it again. It just won’t be the same specific story.”

Whether the subject will inform the play she’s working on now, 
Macdonald isn’t saying. In fact, in terms of what the play might be 
about, she won’t say much at all on the subject, preferring instead to 
hold onto a superstitious sense of mystery that’s as perfect as when 
she’s dealing with the dishwasher man.

“Do you mind if I don’t tell you?” she says. “If you talk about things 
you’re working on, they can disappear in a puff of smoke. It’s almost 
like you lose a part of it.”

She pauses.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I have to go. People are calling for me.”

She Town, Dundee Rep, September 12th-29th
The Herald, September 11th 2012


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