Rob Drummond was at home in England when he looked at the news feed on his phone, and saw a post about the fire at Glasgow School of Art. It was June 2018, and the writer and performer behind such hits as Grain in the Blood, Bullet Catch and Our Fathers initially presumed the post was to mark the fourth anniversary of the 2014 blaze in GSA’s Mackintosh Building, which was undergoing a major restoration after much of it was destroyed.
As it turned out, the news was far worse, as reports of a second fire were beamed across the world. As someone who had taken Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s iconic construction for granted while living in Glasgow, Drummond was as stunned as anyone else with even a passing relationship with the Mack.
While emotions continue to run high in response to the disaster, Drummond channelled his thoughts on all this into what he does best. The result is The Mack, a new play that forms part of Oran Mor’s A Play, A Pie and a Pint lunchtime theatre season in Glasgow prior to a week-long run at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh.
Over the play’s hour-long duration, Drummond brings to life Mackintosh himself alongside a fireman who fought the inferno and an expert who had been working on the building’s restoration. This is done through a series of criss-crossing monologues that gets to the heart of why The Mack matters so much beyond mere bricks and mortar.
“The Mack is kind of one of those buildings that, even if you don’t know much about it, you know how highly it’s revered,” Drummond reflects. “In Glasgow, there’s a very working class sense of pride in the culture that exists around people. The Mack isn’t just a building. It’s more than that.”
While Drummond has no personal ties to the Mack, its presence in the city he used to live has left its mark.
“The main thing I feel is of a lost opportunity,” he says. “Here was a building that was on my doorstep, and I never visited it. I almost feel guilty about not knowing much about Mackintosh, but I don’t think I’m alone. He’s revered now, but at the time he was alive he wasn’t so highly regarded. When The Mack was built it was considered weird, and even today a lot of people don’t know a thing about the person who made it.”
Drummond researched into Mackintosh’s life, and in particular in relation to his wife, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, through a series of letters he wrote to her. The pair had met at Glasgow School of Art, and were intense collaborators.
“As soon as I found the letters I had my play,” says Drummond, who also spoke to Robyn Calvert, a key member of GSA’s restoration team. Drummond also spoke to a fireman who had been on the frontline during the tragic blaze at Grenfell Tower in London.
“Talking to him added so much to the play,” says Drummond. “I asked him why he became a fireman, and he said it was because he wasn’t talented enough to become a rock star or a footballer.”
While there is a strong element of verbatim-based theatre in Drummond’s play, which draws strongly from interviews as much as Mackintosh’s letters, he is steering clear of any resultant controversies aired following the second fire.
“I don’t think it’s my place to start pointing the finger,” he says. “It’s just a bit too messy. I don’t want to wade in when we’re still finding out about things. I’d rather concentrate on the human story.”
Drummond uses a rarely used word to describe the less cautious responses of some.
“Ultracrepidarianism,” he says of a term firs recorded as being used in 1819 by essayist William Hazlitt. “It means talking with authority about something you know nothing about. There’s one paragraph in the play which addresses the fact that I’m not talking about it, when the expert goes off on a rant about leaving people to get on with the report and waiting to see what it says.”
In terms of what should happen next with what is left of Mackintosh’s construction, Drummond is torn.
“There are two competing things going on,” he says. “Yes, I think they are going to rebuild The Mack, and I would be very surprised if they didn’t, but it’s how they do it that matters. They could rebuild it exactly how it was, which was so beautiful, and was Mackintosh’s only monumental building, but it would be a copy, so it wouldn’t be the same. Or they could do what Mackintosh would do, which is to do something daring, different and new alongside the original design, but I honestly don’t know which one should happen.”
Either way, Drummond’s play sounds more like a meditation on the life that has flowed through the building as much as a taking stock of what happened with a view to what should happen next.
“It’s not a dry biography of Mackintosh,” he says, “and it’s not a case study of the fire. Nor is it a stuffy play about art, but it is a play about big things. It’s about how we value art, and it’s about how we relate to each other. Whenever we have to make cuts, art is always the top of the list of where those cuts have to be made.”
Drummond points to a quote by Winston Churchill, who in 1938 said that ‘The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them…Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due’.
“That could apply to many things today,” says Drummond, “but right now it feels realty pertinent to The Mack.”
The Mack, Oran Mor, Glasgow, April 15-20; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, April 23-27.
The Herald, April 11th 2019