JOYCE MCMILLAN on LIZ LOCHHEAD for Guardian online, 19.1.11
THE NEWS THAT LIZ LOCHHEAD has been appointed Scotland’s new “Makar” – or national poet laureate – will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Lochhead’s brilliant career over the last 40 years; she is not only eminently qualified for the job, but was one of the closest friends and admirers of the previous Makar, Edwin Morgan, who died in August last year.
Born in Motherwell in 1947, into a working-class family with high hopes and ambitions, Lochhead is one of that gifted generation of upwardly-mobile artists for whom the postwar opening-up of higher education represented a golden opportunity, seized with both hands. Already identified as talented student before she left school, she chose to become a student at Glasgow School Of Art – that glorious Charles Rennie Mackintosh building on Garnethill – rather than study English at university, a decision which she believes freed her literary imagination, and gave her confidence in her own creativity. Her first book of poetry, Memo For Spring, was published in 1972, to widespread acclaim; and from that moment, she was recognised as a major voice in new Glasgow poetry, working alongside – and sometimes performing with – major figures including Tom Leonard, Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, among others.
Lochhead’s poetic style – personal, post-modern, full of tightly-woven cultural and local references, yet soaring to extraordinary heights of lyricism in poems on love and loss, or language and cultural change – always lent itself to public performance, winning her extraordinary popularity among a generation of Scots, including women who identified with her reflections on the experience of heterosexual women caught up in the second wave of feminism; and in the early 1980’s, she moved into theatre, producing a series of plays and adaptations which reflect with almost uncanny power the shifting cultural mood of that post-feminist and nationalist decade, when smaller nations across Europe were reaching for new forms of self-determination. Her first play, Blood And Ice, about Mary Shelley and the writing of Frankenstein, was a brilliant, almost feverishly poetic and dramatic study of the feminist impulse and its limits. Her Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, first seen in 1987, is a superbly witty and theatrical study, almost in cabaret form, of the making of modern Scotland in a dark moment of 16th-century Presbyterian revolution, and of the long echoes of that revolution in Scottish and western society today. Her Scots adaptations of Moliere, notably her 1986 version of Tartuffe, are brilliant, hard-hitting modern versions of those classic social satires; and in 2000, her superb version of Medea, written for Theatre Babel, won the Saltire Prize as Scotland’s Book of the Year.
In recent years, Lochhead has been exploring the form and possibilities of romantic comedy, in plays like Perfect Days and Good Things, and has continued to publish volumes of poetry; her major collected works, The Colour Of Black And White, appeared in 2003. Lochhead is a profoundly Scottish poet and playwright. But in the intensity of her engagement with feminism, and with the cultural nationalism of a re-emerging nation, she reflects some of the key cultural and political shifts of the late 20th century; and at her best, she uses poetry, and the fluid energy of a changing language, to shape new theatrical worlds in a way that seems almost Shakespearean. Read aloud the first two pages of Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, in which the chorus-figure – a corbie, or crow – sets out to define Scotland, and you will see that power in action; words that glitter and smoke on the page and in the mouth, from a makar – or poetry-maker – who is superbly worthy of the name, and who, at 63, still has much more work to do.