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7:84's new artistic director's reasons to be cheerful     

The way Lorenzo Mele tells it, he’s just got his dream job. His two passions in life are theatre and politics, and he will now get to combine the two. Mele, 36, is the new artistic director of 7:84, the Glasgow-based left-wing theatre company established by the much-loved John McGrath, whose death last year was headline news far beyond Scotland. Named after a now dated statistic (7 per cent of the UK’s population owning 84 per cent of the wealth), 7:84 remains committed to making work about social injustice.

Well, good for Mele, but will anyone envy him? Yesterday the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) confirmed that it is considering stopping 7:84’s core funding after 2005. It is, to be brutal, against the odds that the company would survive such a move. Until now the SAC has provided 48 per cent of its £467,000 funding, and the nature of the company’s work means it has difficulty accepting corporate sponsorship (it has campaigned on alcoholism, for example, which rules out drinks companies).

While 7:84 will tell you this has come out of the blue, concern has been growing about the company for some time. Reviews of recent productions have been mixed, two board members have resigned, and the company took a long time to appoint Mele. The job was, in fact, advertised twice. Board chairman Chris Barter says this was because "the criteria the first time were too broad" but Mele had applied first time around. He was, one is forced to conclude, not the first choice. Beyond that, one can only speculate; what is known is that one rejected applicant wrote a vicious attack on 7:84 - under a pseudonym - in The List magazine. Mele’s appointment, insiders claim, divided the company, while the outside world seemed indifferent. Mele is respected as a director, but ultimately an unknown quantity.

7:84’s new boss, then, faces a mighty task. Can he prove himself and save his company? I ask the playwright John Clifford, whom Mele directed in Clifford’s last play, God’s New Frock. "I think he’s a very good choice for 7:84," Clifford says. "He’s well known by the staff there [he was, for a while, the company’s outreach director, in charge of its community work] and he’s got a very clear vision of the direction he wants to take the company in." 7:84, Clifford acknowledges, has been "in the doldrums" of late, but he adds: "To cut funding at this point, when the company is beginning to revive itself, would be stupid and very wrong."

Is Mele the man to make the SAC change its mind? "Well, I think he believes passionately in what he’s doing," says Clifford. "He’s a very modest guy, he doesn’t push himself forward, and that will perhaps hold him back a bit - compare him to somebody like Kenny Ireland, who’s very good at telling the world what an important person he is. Lorenzo isn’t good at that, but I would say he’s a better director."

I meet Mele at 7:84’s office for his first newspaper interview since getting the job. The meeting, before yesterday’s announcement, was 7:84’s idea and is, transparently, an early step in a charm offensive intended to save the company. And he is charming; he laughs easily and makes jokes.

Asked about funding, he is defiant. "We will fight a huge battle," he says. "We have exceeded all the targets we’d agreed with the SAC in terms of audience and income generation, and we have masses of partners in terms of outreach [community work is a large part of 7:84’s remit]. We won’t be going under." Clifford is right about his modesty; Mele speaks with quiet determination rather than a raised voice. It’s hard to know whether this is a good quality for his new job or not. He can sound slightly whiny when angry, but is impressively articulate.

Understandably, he won’t comment on the long selection process. Now he’s in the job, he says, he’s "very excited". "It’s very challenging because everybody’s got an opinion about 7:84 and what it should be." As an example of this, he talks about reaction to the company’s most recent production, Gilt. An attack on modern materialism, it went down better with London critics than Scottish ones, who mostly felt it was too pessimistic, offering criticism but no hope. This paper’s Joyce McMillan said Gilt "lacks the sense of political anger, activism and questioning that should be 7:84’s unique trademark". London may have liked it better, Mele thinks, because "in England there’s no real left alternative to the Labour party; in Scotland we have a stronger left-wing tradition and also left alternatives to the Labour party like the SSP and the Green party. I think there’s this sense things can be pushed further."

In other words, 7:84’s reputation here is a hostage to left-wingers who are outside the company but feel they have a stake in it. There is some truth in this, and it has something to do with the hold John McGrath still has on the company, even from beyond the grave. When people talk about what 7:84 is for, they are often talking about the personality of the charismatic campaigner who shaped it. "But ultimately John McGrath was forced to step down by the funders," Mele says, choosing his words carefully, "because it was felt it was all flag waving and not enough drama. This is part of the problem 7:84 has. Either people say it’s not political enough or it’s too political. There’s a fine balance to be struck."

Mele is himself a campaigning socialist - although, he stresses, the only party he has ever joined was CND. Born in Rome to an Italian father and British mother, he moved to London when he was four. His politics were shaped partly by his Italian grandfather, a railwayman whose communism stopped him from getting promoted, but mainly by the Falklands war, which Mele, aged 14, instinctively felt was wrong. Soon he was bunking off school to demonstrate against Thatcher. He moved to Glasgow at 19 to study politics; later he formed MCT, a theatre company exploring gay issues (Mele himself is gay). The first time I met him, five years ago, he was directing a play called Smells and Bells, a funny, if slightly heavy-handed, attack on sexual hypocrisy in the Catholic church. Even then his sights were set on 7:84.

Back to the question, then. What is 7:84 for? As Mele takes charge, the company still appears to be asking itself that question rather than boldly answering it. Last year it abandoned a production of Sarah Kane’s suicide play 4:48 Pychosis to revive two agitprop classics - Frank McGuinness’s Factory Girls and Dario Fo’s Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! both of which feature women rebelling against capitalism. Both were popular, and undoubtedly still relevant, but it all felt like a company in a holding pattern. Then there was Gilt, discussed above.

For Mele 7:84 is about "theatre that has a viewpoint, but you have to be very careful how you express that viewpoint. Theatre that tells the audience what to think and feel is dull." One crucial dilemma, he thinks, is whether plays should be about specific institutions, such as the current government, or deal in metaphor.

"When you’re very direct," he says, "some people find it a bit vulgar, and there’s a sense that it’ll date, that you’re not creating great theatre because great theatre is about metaphor that will last through different societies. But if you set out to write great theatre you write shit. You write what you’re passionate about and time decides whether it’s great theatre or not."

So what is Mele passionate about? Here are his plans. Early next year the company will adapt Mark Steel’s book Reasons to be Cheerful. In September Mele plans a play examining the current state of British public services. That same month there will be readings to commemorate the third anniversary of the Twin Towers attack. And the following spring there will be an updated adaptation of Christopher Brookmyre’s Scottish political satire Boiling a Frog. It’s a promising mix - if Reasons to Be Cheerful sounds like a company still studying its navel (the play, Mele says, will be an exploration of the meaning of socialism), the next three could see it boldly taking on contemporary issues.

And, as Mele knows, this is a very fashionable thing to be doing right now - in London, at least. Prompted by the hugely controversial Iraq war, London has seen a sudden revival in political theatre this year: Justifying War, the recreation of the Hutton Inquiry; The Madness of George Dubya, which went from Fringe hit to extended West End run; a debut play by Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation; and now a new play by David Hare. "There is a real hunger out there to see plays which are political," enthuses Mele. No wonder he’s excited; he has a golden opportunity to spearhead a similar revival in Scotland. The question is: can he grasp it impressively and quickly enough to secure 7:84’s future? I wish him luck.

The Scotsman  
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Wednesday, November 26, 2003back



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