Robert David MacDonald

Meticulous and erudite director of the Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow
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The Independent Online

Robert David MacDonald, writer, director, actor, musician and translator: born Elgin, Morayshire 27 August 1929; Director, Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow 1970-2003; died London 19 May 2004.

Robert David MacDonald, Director of the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow for 33 years, until his retirement in May 2003, was the consummate theatrical polymath.

As writer, director, actor, musician and translator, MacDonald played a key role in reviving James Bridie's Gorbals theatre from the ashes of dead-end programming, creating a flamboyant and unique powerhouse famous for staging the important and radical works of the European literary canon.

Born in Elgin, Morayshire, in 1929, to a doctor and a tobacco-company executive, Robert David MacDonald (known as David) was educated at Wellington School. After National Service in Trieste, he read Modern History at Magdalen College, Oxford, and then went to the Royal College of Music and the Munich Conservatory, where he studied conducting. Eventually he exploited another great strength, linguistics, becoming a translator for Unesco.

It was whilst translating dry factual reports that his famously meticulous approach to "the letter rather than the spirit" of translation was born. "In translating a report on the wheat yield of the Argentine," he once commented, by way of example, "there is no spirit and if you get the letter wrong you are likely to upset the economic count of nations for years to come."

He began a fruitful professional relationship with the German director Erwin Piscator, which led to his first major success translating Piscator's version of War and Peace (1962). It was televised by Granada, later running on Broadway for two years, and received an Emmy Award when it was televised in America. MacDonald moved up the directorial ranks, via Glyndebourne and Covent Garden, before being appointed Artistic Director of Her Majesty's Theatre, Carlisle, in 1960.

It was there that MacDonald gave the young would-be director Giles Havergal his first job. Their situations were reversed less than a decade later when Havergal, newly installed as Artistic Director of the Citizens' Theatre alongside the designer/ director Philip Prowse, appointed MacDonald a co-director, forming the triumvirate that famously fed European high art to Gorbals theatre-goers for as little as 50p a performance.

In the words of his successor at the Citizens', Jeremy Raison, MacDonald was "the glue that held together [the triumvirate]", providing the Citizens' with a backbone of meticulous, erudite and brilliant translations of little-staged, radical European works, directing over 50 plays, and making the Citizens' one of the most exciting theatres in Britain, where the careers of Gary Oldman, Pierce Brosnan, Sian Thomas and Ian McDiarmid were launched. Working at the Citizens' was, said one actor, of its flamboyant, provocative, experimental approach, "like the SAS, but with make-up".

But it was for his translations, stemming from his ability to speak at least eight languages fluently, that MacDonald may well be best remembered. He brought a diet of Goethe, Lermentov, Gogol, Goldoni and Racine, not only to Glasgow audiences, but to those around Europe and America, his work including a number of acclaimed Edinburgh International Festival productions. On leaving the Citizens' last year, aged 74, he had talked of translating the only Schiller play he had yet to work on.

Frequently described by those who knew him as witty and erudite, the white-haired polymath brought an occasionally sharp tongue and sharper humour to his numerous works, original and adapted, with a strong appetite for the controversial. The "impossible" seemed to MacDonald merely a formality to be checked off on the route to success. "You're only as good as the thing you did last," MacDonald commented, before adding, in typical MacDonald style, "if things are going well."

Staging the "unstageable", in 1980 he produced a "glittering, exquisite" version of Karl Kraus's Last Days of Mankind, an adaptation of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu which he wittily reimagined A Waste of Time, and a lifetime commitment to the frequently inflammatory works of Rolf Hochhuth, a passion he shared with Piscator. His 1969 translation of Hochhuth's Soldiers, vetoed for production by the National Theatre, was eventually produced in the West End, at the instigation of the theatre critic and then literary manager at the National Theatre Kenneth Tynan.

MacDonald's own plays also courted controversy. The De Sade Show (Citizens, 1975) was dismissed by one critic, with truly Victorian grandeur, "We are debased." Chinchilla followed shortly afterwards in 1977, and in 1978, MacDonald's best-known play, Summit Conference, imagined a meeting between Hitler's mistress Eva Braun, and Mussolini's, Clara Petacci. The play was revived in London in the early Eighties with a Citizens' Theatre regular, Glenda Jackson.

For all his work behind the scenes as director and writer, MacDonald, although a fiercely private man, developed an on-stage career after appearing as pianist in Brecht's Happy End (1973).

His Citizens' career ended on a directorial high note last year with an adaptation of Henry Green's novel Nothing, nominated as Best New Play in the Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland, and a production of his version of Snow White as the Christmas pantomime, after which he retired to London to start work on a new play.

Looking back on his years in post at the Citizens' Theatre, in 1995 MacDonald commented, somewhat drily, "In that time, the avant-garde has become the déjà vu."

He is survived by his long-term partner, Henry Mann.

Sarah Jones