Other writers and directors may have more work on show in Edinburgh, but John McGrath is positioned proudly at both extremes of the festival spectrum. On the Fringe, The Last Of The MacEachans (Theatre Workshop) is the latest, and among the best, of the small-scale solo pieces McGrath has created with his partner Elizabeth MacLennan: a middle-aged Highland woman comments sadly upon the external forces debilitating her homeland – Home Counties incomers, families sundered by emigration, even the rewriting of national history in the video of Braveheart she is watching.
In the International Festival, McGrath has created a raucous, sprawling behemoth of an "update" to Scotland's greatest play, Sir David Lyndsay's Ane Satyre Of The Thrie Estaitis. Four centuries on, McGrath is most concerned with the new fourth estate, the "Meeja". His arch-villain is the Australian multi-national, multi-media baron Lord Merde (with every mention his name followed by an ejaculatory "Och!"). He and his minions are intent on grabbing their own slice of a new Scotland and compromising the fine intentions of King Humanity as he returns to a land now free.
As Lyndsay wrote of a country on a hopeful threshold (just as James V ascended the throne), McGrath anticipates an at least autonomous Scotland thanks to the promises of "Saviour Blair". His idealism is unashamed – roles for the human virtues and a real place for the currently dispossessed underclass – nor does he balk at espousing socialist values without an emasculatory "New" attached thereto. His bile at media consumerism is unrestrained and informed by lengthy personal experience, and often his ire runs away with him: the London mediocracy may well find such sustained invective against an easy target grows tedious. But satire's teeth feel sharper in a more compact society where targets are more immediate – and Scotland's own media princeling, Gus MacDonald, is the subject of several sideswipes.
Moreover, although McGrath's verse sometimes veers into doggerel, it carries a fearsome energy. The plot itself – in which Merde's minions try but fail to divert Humanity from his avowed path – takes up only the second half of the evening, after a long and chaotic prologue in which the estates are introduced and the audience warmed up by Sylvester McCoy's cheerfully bonkers Grandfather Jock. Close-range references fly around with gay abandon (even Robert Lepage's cancellation merits a couplet), songs are inserted in keeping with the preferred strategy of David MacLennan's Wildcat company, and the plot is resolved not by any named character but by the intervention of a chorus-line ex machina of Highland-Riverdancing girls.
The show is deliberately sited in Edinburgh's new conference centre, a shrine to the demonic forces against which McGrath rails. High culture it is not, nor possessed of any of the supposed qualities of a well made play. It dares to be hopeful, politically passionate and bursting with a vitality which above all is gloriously human. Its like may not be seen again for some time: the Scottish Arts Council's recent decision to convert its theatrical funding from a revenue to a franchise basis will effectively preclude the likes of Wildcat from embarking on such a project again.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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