THE KEIRA’S FAMILY – SHARMAN MACDONALD (MOTHER) – WILL KNIGHTLEY (FATHER)
Keira Knightley, the daughter of Sharman Macdonald, a Scottish actress and playwright, and English theatre and television actor Will Knightley, never doubted what her future career would be. It is reported that at age three she asked her parents if she could have an agent, but that they would not allow it until she was six.
Learning to live with the presence of death in life … Sandra Voe as Sadie and Sheila Reid as Ina in The Girl with Red Hair
Will Sharman Macdonald and I recognise each other with our clothes on? The only time we’d met was by accident in the changing room of a Devon swimming pool and the playwright, horrified to find herself in such close and unexpected proximity to a naked theatre critic, scuttled away so swiftly that she left her swimsuit behind. For some time afterwards my children talked accusingly about "that nice lady you scared away".
It turns out that Macdonald was not scared, merely shy. She sits in the corner of a riverside Richmond cafe, a small, fine-boned, beautiful woman with a curtain of grey hair shielding her from the world. Like her plays she is introverted, gentle but good company. "It invites you in rather than going out to you," she says of her latest work, The Girl with Red Hair, her first play for five years. You could say much the same about Macdonald.
The shyness should come as no surprise. It was crippling stage fright that ended Macdonald’s career as an actor in the early 80s. She had to find another way of earning money and quickly, and it crossed her mind that she could write a better play than some of those she had appeared in.
Her husband, the actor Will Knightley, made a deal with her: if she sold a play they could afford to have another baby. So she wrote the funny and painful When I Was A Girl I Used to Scream and Shout, about the relationship between childless, unmarried Fiona and her crisp, divorced mother Morag with whom she is sharing a chilly Scottish beach holiday. As the play unfolds we discover it was in the very same resort where,17 years previously, the young Fiona deliberately got pregnant to prevent Morag’s remarriage and her mother’s one chance of happiness, before deciding to have an abortion.
Macdonald sent the play under a pseudonym to the Bush Theatre, where she had previously worked as an actor. Actor Alan Rickman, then a reader for the West London new writing theatre, plucked it off the unsolicited script pile, read it and told the Bush they should put it on immediately. In 1984 they did.
When I was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout was a huge hit, eventually transferring by way of the Edinburgh festival (where Scottish audiences pursed their lips at the sexual fumblings) to the West End with Julie Walters in the lead. For a long time Macdonald had the distinction of being the West End’s only female playwright bar Agatha Christie.
Such sudden and public success came as a shock. "There was a moment, when I realised ‘Oh I’ve got to be a writer now’, and I felt shut in. I thought I am no longer a possibility. I’m defined," she recalls. But it also turned her life around. "It gave me a career, it gave me my house, and most of all it gave me my daughter. It allowed us to live." Her daughter has since grown up into the Hollywood actor Keira Knightley, which also accounts for Macdonald’s shyness around the press.
You sense that Macdonald would prefer not to talk about her daughter, but that is impossible as all her plays are pivoted on mother and daughter relationships and their ambiguities. A sense of compromised choices, particularly as they affect women and cause tensions between different generations, runs through all her work. When I Was a Girl… drew strongly on her relationship with her own mother ("although she wasn’t divorced and I wasn’t pregnant at 15"), and the film version of her play The Winter Guest, directed by Rickman, made great play of the fact that it starred real-life mother and daughter Phyllida Law and Emma Thompson.
Her new play, The Girl with Red Hair, set in the wake of the death of a daughter on the brink of adulthood, speaks eloquently not just of the specific and terrible grief of the bereaved, but the sense of loss that all women feel as their children grow up and leave home.
"A lot of the writing was done at a time when both my children were becoming independent and leaving home, that time when you have such hopes and fears for them," says Macdonald. "With Keira I want to celebrate her success, wonderful talent and the fact that she is a complete sweetheart, but I also see her at her dark and vulnerable moments. You worry that she’s all right. But I also know that if she isn’t, she’ll be sensible enough to call and say ‘I need you here.’ My children are more important than any career."
Of course Macdonald is quick to point out that the deceased Roslyn, a talented singer, who haunts the living in The Girl with Red Hair is in no way based on Keira: "That would be too horrible to contemplate. It would feel too much like tempting fate." In fact The Girl with Red Hair had its origins in a fatal car crash involving teenagers living near her Teddington home, and the discovery, while filming The Winter Guest near Fife, of a graveyard set right on the edge of the sea.
Macdonald’s plays may be quiet and understated, but she sees no reason why the small and domestic shouldn’t be riveting: "If we don’t study the family how can we understand the wider power plays in society? It’s in the family that it all begins."
What’s more the emotional and physical landscape of the plays has always been huge: in the case of The Girl with Red Hair so big that the play could not be physically squeezed into the Bush. It is a sign of artistic director Mike Bradwell’s enthusiasm for it that he sought co-producers and spaces that could accommodate its sweep: it opened at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh and now transfers to London’s Hampstead Theatre.
In recent years Macdonald has spent more time writing movies than writing for the theatre and her screenplay The Best Time of Our Lives, about a group of friends who include Dylan and Caitlin Thomas at the end of the second world war, is about to go into production. But it would be a pity if she were to desert the theatre entirely. Her elliptical dramas may be the antithesis of the blokeish, punchy plays currently in fashion, but nobody writes with more poetry about the internal emotional hinterlands of women or with more honesty about learning to live with the presence of death in life.
"People say my plays are melancholy. But I think that I’m an optimist. The Girl with Red Hair is a redemptive piece. Can you be a melancholy optimist? If you can, that’s me."