John McGrath's death is great loss to political theatre

John McGrath, founder of the 7:84 theatre company, inspired some of the biggest names in British culture. But does his death spell the end of the political play? Brian Logan investigates

'There's two purposes in living," according to the old soldier Sandy in John McGrath's play Blood Red Roses. "There's enjoyment, like reading or playing with the grandchildren, or growing scarlet runners. That's one, but there's no flavour to that, no value in it without the other: and that's fighting 'the struggle'".

McGrath, the pioneering founder of the 7:84 theatre company, struggled to the end. He was Britain's Brecht, Scotland's Dario Fo. His death in January from leukaemia robbed the country of a creative powerhouse who was often out of fashion but never out of action. A celebration of his life and work at Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms this weekend will be attended by British theatre's great and good. They come to praise McGrath - but, now he's gone, is Sunday's event also a wake for campaigning socialist theatre?

Certainly McGrath's brand of partisan, celebratory political theatre is "way out of fashion", according to Jude Kelly, outgoing director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse and former McGrath collaborator. Like Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, which inspired McGrath, 7:84 took theatre to the poor and the far-flung, and spoke to them - in political terms, but using the vernacular of popular entertainment - about their lives. "Those communities never stopped wanting the work," says Kelly, "but the theatre industry decided that it had had its day." By the late 1980s, when the Scottish Arts Council squeezed McGrath out by insisting on 7:84's political neutrality (it was affiliated to the TUC; Neil Kinnock and Gordon Brown sat on its board), the company had redefined touring theatre.

7:84's influence is still felt. To Nicolas Kent, who runs London's community-oriented Tricycle Theatre, "John was a beacon, and we were all attracted to the light of that beacon. It's a light that you try to keep faith with afterwards". Richard Eyre, ex-director of the National Theatre, cites McGrath as a mentor. "I learned many of the most important things about the theatre from John," he says, "but today's theatre world is manifestly not following his example - if anything, it's retreating from his example."

To be fair, it is an awesome example to follow. Besides 7:84, McGrath also co-created Z-Cars, the groundbreaking TV police series. In the 1990s, he not only produced Christopher Hampton's film Carrington, but also founded the highly influential Moonstone film lab, which workshopped Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher. Michael Caine's career also began in one of McGrath's early plays, Why the Chicken?

McGrath also directed Guardian journalist Richard Norton-Taylor's dramatisation of the arms-to-Iraq inquiry, Half the Picture, and - in his spare time, perhaps - advised the European Commission in Brussels on cultural policy.

The hallmark of his work, say admirers, was the spicing of political commitment with exuberant artistry. Giles Havergal, artistic director of Glasgow's Citizens Theatre (where McGrath's last work, HyperLynx, plays next week), says: "I've never worked with, or met, anybody who could blend art and socialism so successfully." McGrath was fiercely anti-bourgeois, but even more fiercely anti-bullshit, railing against "the unwritten rule that to be truly creative in the theatre you must be a pain in the arse". Whereas today, the words "political theatre" drop from the tongue like lead, McGrath always aimed to provide - in the title of his seminal book - A Good Night Out. His most famous show, 1973's The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, dramatised the Highland Clearances and the plunder of North Sea oil. There were many more that sought, wrote McGrath, to "support working-class aspirations, to remind people of their history and human potential".

Today, few speak, far less make theatre, with such ideological intent. 7:84 continues to operate with distinction in Scotland, but to speak to its director, Gordon Laird, is to receive an object lesson in what political theatre has come to mean since McGrath quit. "Agitprop was a preachy kind of theatre," says Laird, "very didactic, very polemic. There's been a shift towards allowing the audience to make up their own minds about the issue rather than being told what to think." 7:84's next production is Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis, a fine piece of writing, but surely as far from McGrath's idea of a good night out as it is possible for theatre to be.

Not everyone accepts the commonplace notion that modern political theatre must be even-handed. Lisa Goldman runs the Red Room; her production of Kay Adshead's asylum-seeker monologue The Bogus Woman toured Britain in 2001. "Isn't it the role of art to be visionary and put a perspective across?," asks Goldman. "You might want teachers or lawyers to be even-handed, but artists?" As organiser of Artists Against the War, a campaigning group opposed to the war on terrorism, Goldman has abundant recent experience of artists' nervousness of politics. "There's a lot of dishonesty about this. The idea that you can sit on the fence, that theatre is somehow above politics, I find offensive."

Kelly agrees: the supposed fall from fashion of campaigning theatre didn't happen by force of nature, but because "people in theatre lost the courage and sense of political immediacy that prompted agitprop".

According to Kelly, who directed McGrath's Wicked Old Man in 1990, "theatre was cowed, and remains cowed, by the fierceness of the opinion that is against it being political in any obvious way". Far from 7:84's compassionate socialist agenda, she says, "there's now a kind of revulsion against the idea of doing something for others: 'Who do you think you are? Isn't that being nanny state?', and so on. For God's sake, if we all felt like that, nobody would have invented the National Health Service. We'd still be walking around with pomanders trying to avoid the great unwashed."

She laments the fact that "we've moved away from what was once said, which was that all communities needed relevant art activity - not just participatory activity, but people like [folk singer] Ewan McColl on the back of a lorry, giving voice to problems and helping them be restated through entertainment."

Eyre insists that McGrath's ideas still have currency. "If somebody of talent and passion got together a company and followed John's agenda, they could create some great theatre." The oft-cited uncoolness of 7:84-style theatre is a bluff just waiting to be called. The actor Elizabeth McLennan, McGrath's widow and lifelong collaborator, argues that "John and I were constantly being told young people don't care about politics any more. I find this to be entirely untrue." It is a cliché that is wildly contradicted by the facts, says Goldman, who believes that "at the moment, we're riding on a slight wave of interest in ideas and radical politics. There's loads of stuff happening at grass roots level but that work isn't given status."

One of McGrath's old comrades, the Hackney Empire supremo Roland Muldoon, agrees. Muldoon worked with the left wing Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre during the 1970s, the heyday of campaigning theatre. "We exploited and developed a rich seam at that time - up to and during the miners' strike - where there was real working-class mobilisation," he says. "It would be harder now, as that orthodoxy of left consciousness doesn't exist - although there's plenty of need for it." But he is optimistic about the future. "The anti-globalisation movement, and the fact that people are again beginning to understand the nature of capitalism, will give birth to these cultural phenomena.

"At the height of 7:84, they really did go out there and reflect people's lives, have a good time and organise politically," he says. "The question now is: how can a theatre movement become vital again?" He pauses. "Well, it will. Well, it should. I think we should make it happen."

· A Good Night Out is at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, on Sunday. All proceeds are in aid of leukaemia research. Details: 0131-220 4349. HyperLynx is at the Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, from May 30 to June 1. Details: 0141-429 0022.

The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and Clarifications column, Thursday May 16 2002

Richard Norton-Taylor's dramatisation of the arms-to-Iraq inquiry, Half the Picture, was directed by Nicolas Kent, not John McGrath.


Brian Logan

The GuardianTramp

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