JOYCE MCMILLAN: WILDCAT LEGACY – CAN THESE SHOWS BE REVIVED? for the Scotsman Magazine, 15.11.14.
THE TEMPTATION to nostalgia was strong, as Scotland’s theatre community gathered at the Citizens’ last Sunday night to say farewell to David MacLennan, veteran of 7:84, co-founder of Wildcat Stage Productions, and founder and producer of A Play, A Pie And A Pint at Oran Mor. The great former director of the Citizens’, Giles Havergal, opened the evening with a powerful tribute to “a switched-on, brilliantly informed political human being, and a great man of the theatre”. And then one by one the stars came out to sing David’s songs and tell their stories, led by his old musical partner David Anderson with the Wildcat Band, Elaine C. Smith (in stunning form with the title song from the 1984 miners’ strike show, Dead Liberty), Liz Lochhead, Mel Giedroyc, David’s sister Liz MacLennan, his wife Juliet Cadzow, and dozens more.
Yet as I left the theatre – after a short three hours, brilliantly orchestrated by director Morag Fullarton – I found myself thinking less of the past, and more of what Scottish theatre might do now, in the 21st century, with the tremendous body of work MacLennan created in his lifetime. For the plays and playwrights he nurtured at Oran Mor, in the last decade of his life, there are at least some established ways forward; the plays exist as scripts, and the playwrights can – with luck – move on to win commissions elsewhere.
Yet Sunday night’s show came as powerful reminder of the sheer strength of the work Anderson and MacLennan themselves produced for Wildcat, and the subtlety and beauty of their greatest songs; and of the fact that the nature of Wildcat’s work – driven by the politics of the moment, jotted down on paper in the age before laptops – means that it is often preserved mainly in the memory, of both performers and audience.
So of almost 70 original Wildcat shows created between 1978 and 1998, only one – Tony Roper’s The Steamie, which started life as a standard playscript – has been revived since 1998; and even then, the director of a recent production discovered that David Anderson’s superb and much-loved songs for the show only existed as a set of rough notes in a plastic carrier bag.
And even where scripts from this vital period of Scottish theatre exist – as in the early Wildcat scripts held at Glasgow University’s Scottish Theatre Archive – it’s clear how little they would lend themselves to straightforward revival. A few years ago, teaching 7:84’s The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil to students in Edinburgh, I was struck both by how much they loved the text – its energy, style, themes – and by the extent to which even that great piece of theatre would now need radical creative reworking to restore the sense of topicality it had back in 1973.
And so there is a vital job to be done here, at least as important as the one John McGrath did back in the early 1980’s, when he began to unearth great neglected Scottish plays like Men Should Weep and In Time O’ Strife. There are scripts to be pieced out and published, and songs to be saved and recorded, beyond the small Roadworks collection of Wildcat lyrics published by the Third Eye Centre in 1987.
More importantly, though, there is theatre to be made that finds completely new ways of using this legacy, not so much of plays, but of attitude, ideas, stories, and songs. Just occasionally, in a show at Oran Mor, David Anderson will recycle the odd song from Wildcat’s heyday, such as the terrific That’s The Way The River Runs, from the 1985 South American show Business In The Backyard. This is a legacy, though, that deserves a richer, fuller life than that; and that could now inspire a whole new generation of Scottish theatre artists to do as MacLennan always did – thinking outside the box, challenging assumptions about theatrical form, and forever searching out new audiences, in Scotland, and beyond.