JOYCE MCMILLAN on LIZ LOCHHEAD for Pitlochry Festival Theatre, April 2014 ______________________________________________________
‘AFTER THE WAR, WAS THE DULL COUNTRY I was born in”, writes Liz Lochhead, in her great 1983 poem After The War. If Scotland’s national Makar was born into an age of postwar austerity, though there has been nothing dull about her dazzling and internationally acclaimed career as a poet and playwright, which has made her one of the leading Scottish literary figures of the last 40 years. Born in 1947 in Newarthill, Lanarkshire – where her father was a local council clerk – she was part of that postwar generation of children from ordinary backgrounds who seized the chance of a university-level education with both hands, and who grew up to believe that a whole new world of freedom and equality was in reach.
Lochhead was a star pupil at Dalziel High School in Motherwell, and in 1965 she moved on to Glasgow School of Art, where she began her creative life as both an artist and a writer. Her first book of poetry, Memo For Spring, was published in 1972, when she was still working as an art teacher in schools around Glasgow; but by that time, she was already a key member of a powerful group of Glasgow-based writers including Tom Leonard, Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, and the late, great Michael Marra, and was increasingly involved – with Marra and others – in performing her poetry live. For Lochhead, the art of writing truthfully about late-20th century life involved a strong strand of feminism, and a growing interest in developing a voice, or voices, for the new Scotland that was emerging in the late 20th century; so that by the end of the 1970’s, she was already recognised by a generation of young women in Scotland – and by quite a few men – as speaking for and about them, in a voice of unparalleled honesty, accuracy, invention and wit.
In the early 1980’s, Lochhead began to develop her growing gift for dramatic molongues in the direction of full-scale theatre. In 1982, the Traverse premiered her first full-length play Blood And Ice, an intense poetic drama about the writer Mary Shelley, and the creation of her great work Frankenstein. Over the next two decades, Lochhead produced a series of superb stage texts, including her acknowledged masterpiece Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, first seen in Edinburgh in 1987, and several fine Scots versions of plays by Moliere, including an explosively brilliant Tartuffe, and – in 2000 – an award-winning version of Medea.
By the end of the 1990’s, though, Liz Lochhead was developing an ever-stronger interest in romantic comedy, that light-touch but formidably difficult form of screen and stage drama that has produced masterpieces from Some Like It Hot to When Harry Met Sally; and Perfect Days, first seen at the Traverse Theatre in 1998, it perhaps the finest of Lochhead’s rom-coms, the story – first written for Lochhead’s great actress friend Siobhan Redmond – of a 39-year-old Glasgow celebrity hairdresser with a ticking biological clock, and a hopelessly complicated private life.
In a single beautifully-made two-act play, Perfect Days brings together many of Lochhead’s deepest concerns – with the changing lives of women and the complicated choices they now face, with the pin-point accurate observation of contemporary life and manners, and, in the background, with a 1990’s Glasgow very different, in language and style, from the stereotyped old industrial city of the past. Perfect Days is an easy play to watch, as a good rom-com should be; it rolls past on a fine wave of laughter and tears. It’s a prime example, though, of the art that conceals art; an outwardly graceful and lighthearted comedy that contains within it all the wisdom, the wit, the complexity, and the clear-eyed humanity, of one of Scotland’s greatest writers, working at the height of her powers.