A week in the life of John McGrath: A play, a film and the BAFTA lecture at Edinburgh, a play at Glasgow and a new film in the producing - John McGrath hasn't been taking things easy since his recovery from serious illness. By Sarah Hemming

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Standing in the doorway of his home, John McGrath is trying to remember why he wasn't at the Edinburgh Festival last year. 'What were we doing last year?' he asks Elizabeth MacLennan, his wife. 'You were ill, remember?' she replies. 'Oh, of course,' he says. 'That's what happened to last year.'

Indeed much of 1993 was obliterated for McGrath. For months the radical playwright, director and campaigner was confined in University College Hospital, suffering from acute septicaemia. He is fully recovered now, even his distinctive shock of white hair, lost to chemotherapy, is back, and he is stirred rather than shaken by his experience. 'I had 19 projects ongoing when I went into hospital,' he says. 'It makes you realise you should concentrate on what you really want to do.'

For someone who is supposed to be scaling down, however, it can't be said that he's doing terribly well. Piles of papers and books teeter on every surface in his crowded office - testaments to his many current projects - and this week, he confesses, is 'quite a busy one'. His one-woman play Reading Rigoberta opened on the Edinburgh Fringe on Monday, his screenplay Mairi Mhor is shown today at the Edinburgh Film Festival - the same day as he gives the festival's BAFTA celebrity lecture - and when he is not rushing around the country, he is on location as producer of Carrington, a new film by Christopher Hampton, starring Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce. But the most significant date in his crowded diary was last night, when his stage adaptation of The Silver Darlings opened at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow - for this is the project nearest to his heart.

It's 30 years since McGrath first read Neil Gunn's novel about the herring fishermen in 19th-century Caithness. The book hit him with such force that not only did he resolve to adapt it for stage, but he also named his son after the novel's central character, Finn. Finn has long since grown up, but the years have done nothing to shake McGrath's unequivocal respect for the book. 'It's the best novel to come out of Scotland this century,' he says.

The qualities that make Gunn's novel such an inspiring read, however, make it a fiend to stage. It has a huge cast and ranges round the seas, cliffs, harbours and hillsides of the east coast of Scotland. 'Well I've never been deterred by things like that,' says McGrath, with a smile. 'I thought it would make good theatre because it was so big.'

But then moderation never was McGrath's strong suit. Since the early Seventies when he launched 7:84 theatre company, he has galvanised fellow artists with his unshakeable faith in popular theatre. Obstinate, loyal and impassioned, he has inspired some and infuriated others - he finally resigned from 7:84 in 1988, in protest over the Scottish Arts Council's demands for changes to the company.

His most recent Scottish stage productions were mounted by Wildcat, Scotland's other major left-wing company (which is also staging The Silver Darlings), and exhibited the daring and polemical thrust that typifies his work. Staged as promenade productions in the vast Tramway Museum in Glasgow, Border Warfare raced through several millennia of Anglo-Scots relations, while John Brown's Body used the same technique to deal with the history of labour relations.

McGrath's initial impulse with The Silver Darlings was to build on these productions, and reflect the scale of Gunn's novel in the staging. He hoped to mount it, promenade- style, in the Tramway. 'I wanted to use the audience as the sea, and have the boats going in among them,' he says. Budget restrictions and the difficulties of touring made this unfeasible, and The Silver Darlings is now appearing on Scotland's main proscenium arch stages, starting with the Citizens. Instead of using the audience as the sea, the director John Bett is relying on the ingenuity of the designer Wendy Shea, who has concocted a set incorporating cliffs and sea and boats on wheels. McGrath and Bett hope to capture the richness and shifting focus of the novel by running the narrative against a backdrop of almost constant silent action.

That The Silver Darlings is opening in Glasgow and not Edinburgh, where its might have made a great Scottish centrepiece for the Festival, is a rather sore subject with McGrath. He has a history of near misses with the Assembly Hall.

'This one they were interested in - but too late. We'd been writing to Brian McMaster (the current Edinburgh Festival director) for about two years but he never answered any letters. Then he was interested but it was too late - we were already booked at the Citizens. I'm sorry, because I would love to have something on at the Festival.'

The presence he does have in Edinburgh shows his true colours, however. Both his film Mairi Mhor and his play Reading Rigoberta celebrate feisty women refusing to be cowed by authority: Mairi Mhor focuses on a great Gaelic songwriter, Reading Rigoberta on the Guatemalan Indian, Rigoberta Menchu, who tells the tale of the massacre of her people.

Alongside all this, it is something of a surprise to find him involved with the Bloomsbury set. Christopher Hampton's film, Carrington, which McGrath is producing, is about the frustrated relationship between Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey. It's unusual too to find him producing a film, rather than directing. 'I'm doing it to help Christopher,' says McGrath. 'And it's very good experience for me to do this. In a way, it's the equivalent of starting 7:84. I didn't want to run a theatre company, but if you want to make theatre in a different way, you have to learn how to do it first. I'm finding out how it all works, which will help me decide how I want to make films.'

Meanwhile, McGrath will be having his say about the film industry when he gives the BAFTA celebrity lecture at the Edinburgh Film Festival today. He gives the talk as the recipient of three BAFTAS: two Scottish ones (for the television film The Long Roads) and a writer's award. 'I was thrilled to get them,' he says. 'I have no false modesty about it whatsoever: I was very pleased - particularly after last year's illness. The BAFTA writer's award is a kind of lifetime award - I thought it might be given on condition that my lifetime now ceased . . .' He laughs. 'But I foiled that.'

'The Silver Darlings' runs to 3 Sept at the Citizens, Glasgow (041-429 0022) then tours Scotland; 'Reading Rigoberta' runs to 3 Sept at Theatre Workshop, Edinburgh (031-226 5425); 'Mairi Mhor' is screened at 2.15pm today at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh (see Conferences, page 45, for details).

(Photograph omitted)