There was this Irishman, see, who was born and bred in England but lived in Scotland. His name was John McGrath, and he had worked extensively in both countries, writing and directing plays, then touring with them to remote places. To do this, he had founded two theatre companies (one per country), which were named after a ratio: ‘7 per cent of the population owns 84 per cent of the wealth‘. He also wrote film and television scripts, one ofwhich was about the Treaty of Union. Eventually, he decided it was time to write a play about the history of Scotland‘s relationship with England.
The plan was that 7:84 (Scotland) and 7:84 (England) would join forces to present the show, which would then form part of a touring Festival of Popular Theatre. That was back in 1978. at the time ofthe Devolution Bill. The Bill failed, through what McGrath calls ‘an extraordinary manoeuvre‘, and so did the project, ‘for largely financial reasons‘, although McGrath had enlisted the support ofthe STUC.
More than a decade later, a production of Border Warfare is at last taking place. With the Poll Tax less than two months away, and in the aftermath of the SNP‘s victory at Govan, the timing seems more than a little apt.
‘l was in most ofthe English institutions — Oxford University, the British Army, lecturing at Cambridge University — but I feel an affinity with Scottish people that I don‘t feel with English people,‘ says McGrath. ‘You don‘t need to be Scottish to understand what has gone on over the centuries and to feel strongly about what‘s going on now. In 1978, Scotland was beginning to assert its cultural individuality. Now Thatcher is trying— in a subtle way, so you don‘t notice — to undermine that very individuality. Now it‘s even more important: the history needs to be stated so that we know where we stand.‘
But Border Warfare is far from being a dry dirge from an upturned soapbox. Like McGrath‘s early play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil which was 7:84 (Scotland)‘s first show, it is a collage of action, songs, humour and commentary. In the tradition of popular theatre championed by McGrath (particularly in his series of lectures. A Good Night Out, published by Methuen in 1981), we can expect political bite. but also fast-moving entertainment. The rehearsals I saw last weekend seemed to bear this out.
Unlike The Cheviot, however. Border Warfare is a large scale production, taking place in the Old Museum ofTransport, now the Tramway Theatre, which was the ‘ venue for the theatrical event oflast year, Peter Brook’s extraordinary Mahabharata. Instead of using fixed seating, this will be a promenade performance, in which the audience physically follows the action. ‘There‘s a stage at one end, which is England, and a stage at the other end, which is Scotland, and the action happens in between with
Last year, playwright and director John McGrath resigned from 7:84, the company he had founded and led for seventeen years. Next week sees him make a comeback with the Wildcat theatre company. The new play Border Warfare tackles themes close to his heart. Douglas MacGregor caught him on camera, Andrew Bumet caught him on lunchbreak from rehearsals.
ﬂoating stages and horses and castles and flying pulpits,’ explains McGrath. ‘It‘s a brilliant space,‘ he adds. ‘It‘s got a great feel to it.‘
McGrath had in fact submitted a proposal to Glasgow District Council that 7:84 should take over the building when the Museum moved to Kelvinhall. The application was rejected on the grounds that the building was to be demolished, but subsequent interventions by Brook and by the Council‘s Festivals Unit (for which McGrath expresses grateful admiration) have resulted in a stay of execution and a future for the venue as the Tramway Theatre. He already has designs on the building for future shows, as does Tom McGrath (no relation), whose City will be seen there this May.
McGrath did find 7:84 its new premises in Glasgow, but Border Warfare will be presented by Wildcat Theatre Company, since McGrath resigned from 7:84 last year. Like the departure of 7:84 musicians to form Wildcat in 1978, the split was. says McGrath, amicable. He is still on
7:84‘s board, and supports its continued existence, but felt, he says, ‘If I stayed, 7:84 would sink.‘
‘The Arts Council were pressuring me to make changes in 7:84 which I considered I could not and would not make,‘ he says. ‘I felt they were politically interfering. They wanted to change the constitution ofthe board. They were insisting that we get an administrator at what they call market price — ie that the administrator was paid twice the wages of anybody else in the company. I had fought for an equal pay policy which has existed since 1971. I tried to make the compromises.‘ he continues. wearily, ‘but it just stuck in my craw.
‘I think my arguments were proved correct.‘ he adds, with a restraint ' which cannot conceal his bitterness, ‘by the fact that 7:84 has had its two years‘ grant restored without having done a single production since I left. It begins to seem very personal indeed.‘
He is, at any rate. happy to be working with Wildcat alongside former collaborators like his
brother-in-law Dave MacLennan, who helped found 7:84 (Scotland). ‘I think that Wildcat have been extremely clever in that, by the Government‘s own standards, they are successful. It looks as if this year they will play to more people than any theatre in Scotland. There is no way the Arts Council can say “You‘re not doing what the Government wants you to do“. The fact that they‘re able to do that and at the same time to tackle serious issues head-on is a great tribute to them.
‘People accuse them — and me — of preaching to the converted. but the fact is that ifall the people who‘ve seen our shows had been converted we would have a very different kind ofcountry.‘
He is especially critical of developments which have affected arts funding over the past decade: in particular the ‘necessity for success in numeric terms‘ which Wildcat has managed to exploit. It is, however. ‘far more difficult for a small company coming up now to get funding than it ever was when we started.‘ He also feels that the Arts Council has failed in its remit to make arts available to all the communities in Britain — one reason why 7:84 spent so much time touring the Highlands and Islands.
All ofthis is the subject ofa book he has recently completed (though as yet neither title nor publisher has been finalised), one ofseveral outside commitments which compounded his decision to leave 7:84. The other main concern is Freeway, the film-making company he founded, which filmed his play Blood Red Roses for Channel 4, will eventually film Border Warfare, and recently co-produced McGrath‘s adaptation of Beryl Bainbridge‘s The Dressmaker, a stiflineg painful account of the repressive effects of Victorian morality. ‘We‘re now being told by the Government that Victorian morality is what we ought to be going back to,‘ says McGrath. ‘The dialogue wasn‘t within the film, but hopefully with the audience.‘
But despite his work in film and television (the latter dating back to the early days of Z Cars), he denies any suggestion that he has neglected theatre of late. He continued to work with 7:84 (England) until its demise in 1986 through funding problems; and in the past five years he has written three ‘Highland‘ shows with 7:84 Scotland.
In the immediate future, McGrath will work on the third part ofhis history of Scotland for Freeway/Channel 4, a study of the Red Clydesiders to be called John Brown ’5 Body. There are also plans to take Border Warfare to Georgia in the USSR, provided the nationalist content does not offend the Soviet authorities unduly. But he is accustomed to challenging prohibitive bureaucracy. ‘I‘m on for a good fight,‘ he says (ofthe British Arts Council). ‘They have the ultimate weapon ofshutting me up by taking away the money, but I’m not defeated. Clearly.’
Border Warfare opens on Thurs 23 at the 01d Museum of Transport, Glasgow (see Theatre).
6 The List 10 — 23 February