Sharman Macdonald

  • Glasgow, Scotland


Playwright and novelist Sharman Macdonald was born in Glasgow in 1951. Educated at the University of Edinburgh, she graduated in 1972 and moved to London where she acted with the 7:84 theatre company and at the Royal Court Theatre. While she was working as an actress, she wrote her first play, When I Was a Girl, I Used to Scream and Shout (1985), first performed at the Bush Theatre in 1984. The play won the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright.

Her other plays include The Brave, commissioned by the Bush Theatre; When We Were Women, first performed at the Cottesloe Theatre; All Things Nice (1991), commissioned by the English Stage Company and performed at the Royal Court Theatre in 1991; The Winter Guest (1998), commissioned and directed by Alan Rickman and filmed in 1997 starring Emma Thompson and Phyllida Law; and After Juliet (1999), a sequel to Romeo and Juliet dealing with Rosalind's story after the death of Juliet, commissioned by the Royal National Theatre for the BT National Connections Scheme for young people. Her new play, The Girl with Red Hair (2003), premiered at Traverse, Edinburgh in 2003, transferring to London.

She is also the author of two novels, The Beast (1986) and Night Night (1988), and wrote the screenplay for Wild Flowers (1989) for Channel 4 Television and the BBC Radio play Sea Urchins (1998). A further radio play, Gladly My Cross Eyed Bear, was broadcast in 1999. She wrote the libretto to Hey Persephone!, performed at Aldeburgh with music by Deirdre Gribbin.

Sharman Macdonald has two children, and is married to the actor Will Knightley. Her latest work is Wartime Drama When We Were Lovers, performed at the Orange Tree Theatre in September 2015

Critical perspective

Sharman MacDonald's career as a writer had an interesting start.

As a young actress working in London in the 1970s and 1980s, she was plagued by stage fright and desperate to give up acting. She and her husband Will Knightley had one child, Caleb, and although MacDonald was keen for another baby, they could not afford to expand their family. She turned her attention to writing plays, and her husband made a bet - if she sold a play, they could afford another child. Consequently, MacDonald wrote her first play, When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout (1985). It was a success - and also led to the birth of her daughter, future actress Keira Knightley.

MacDonald's plays are domestic and emotionally poignant, contemplative rather than action-packed. She is skilled at emotional exploration: her characters are authentic, complex and multi-faceted, and her dialogue is quietly penetrating and captivating. Thus, while MacDonald's plays are quiet and gentle on the surface, she delves sharply into the emotional and psychological depths of her characters' lives. She regards the family as a microcosm of society, and thus her intimate domestic portraits indirectly comment on the wider world: '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' (MacDonald interviewed in The Guardian, 17 March 2005). Her main emphasis is on the lives and experiences of women, with a particular empTasis on mother-daughter relationships, and the tensions and difficulties that tend to be embedded within these relationships. Her settings are frequently grey and dreary Scottish towns, which heighten the intensity of the family dramas.

When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout was inspired partly by MacDonald's relationship with her own mother, although the story is not autobiographical. It features 30-something Fiona and her mother Morag, on holiday together in the same Scottish coastal town where Fiona had experienced a cold, lonely childhood. The story goes back and forth between the present time and 17 years earlier, when 15-year-old Fiona deliberately got pregnant in order to sabotage her mother's plans for re-marriage. The absence of Fiona's deserter father makes the one-to-one nature of the mother-daughter relationship all the more intense. Like most of MacDonald's work, When I Was a Girl de-mystifies mother love, offering a raw and honest look at its intensity and self-sacrifice, along with the resentment and bitterness that can hover beneath the surface, and the mother's need for validation from the child:

'MORAG: The midwife held you up. You looked right at me. You didn't cry. No, madam. Not you [...] You wouldn't suck. I tried to feed you. I did everything that was proper. You'd take nothing from me.'

(When I Was a Girl)

MacDonald continues to explore domestic themes and family relationships in subsequent plays, such as When We Were Women (first published in When I Was a Girl, I Used to Scream and Shout and Other Plays, 1990) and All Things Nice (1991). Another of her most well-known works is The Winter Guest (first published in Plays One, 1995), which was adapted into a feature film in 1997, starring real-life mother and daughter Phyllida Law and Emma Thompson. Again it explores an intense and ambivalent mother-daughter relationship - Elspeth is visiting her recently widowed daughter Frances, and though the former wishes to offer support, their relationship is fraught with tension. MacDonald once again is not afraid to show that mother love does not always come easily, nor does it always flow unconditionally. As Elspeth looks back on giving birth to Frances, she articulates not only the shock of new motherhood but also, later on, the equally painful process of letting go of one's adult child:

'ELSPETH: Looking after a person, being responsible for them. That's hard learnt [...] You taught me to care, my God. Demanded that I ... that I care. With your screaming and your crying and your wee hands that beat at me and grabbed at me [...] Just because you're all grown up. I've to stop? All that caring. I've to stop?'

(The Winter Guest in Plays One, 1995)

After Juliet (1999) is MacDonald's own sequel to Romeo and Juliet, following the story of Juliet's cousin Rosaline after the death of the two famous lovers. It was commissioned by the Royal National Theatre for the BT National Connections Scheme for Young People, and has proved particularly popular in school drama departments. MacDonald's approach, with its accessible dialogue, believable teenage characters and moments of comedy, gives the story a fresh appeal for a young, modern-day audience, as After Juliet reveals the fragility of the truce between the two families:

'VALENTINE: I see a spitting cat / In your eyes, Rosaline. / I don't see a truce' (After Juliet)

The Girl With Red Hair (2003) has been highly acclaimed. Once again, it explores mother-daughter love in a Scottish coastal setting, though this time it is more tragic: 17-year-old Roslyn, the red-headed girl of the title, has been killed in a car accident a year previously, and the play explores not only the devastating grief of her mother, but the impact on the whole community. The intensity of the subject-matter is lightened by touches of humour and the gradual suggestion that the bereaved may begin to heal, learn to love again and move forward with their lives.

MacDonald's next project was a screenplay, originally called The Best Time of Our Lives but eventually re-titled The Edge of Love. It was released as a feature film in 2008, starring MacDonald's daughter Keira Knightley along with Sienna Miller, Matthew Rhys and Cillian Murphy. Set during World War II, it is the story of Dylan and Caitlin Thomas and their friends, Vera Phillips and William Killick. The Edge of Love was not intended as a biopic of Dylan Thomas' entire life story, for it spans just a few years and focuses on the dynamics between all four characters. MacDonald uses this period in the poet's life as a vehicle to explore the boundaries, ambiguities and complexities of friendship and sexual relationships. She is particularly interested in the friendship between the two women, which is complicated by the fact that Vera was Dylan's childhood sweetheart. The research for the screenplay was aided by film student Rebekah Gilbertson, the real-life grand-daughter of Vera and William.

Elizabeth O'Reilly, 2010


Lu Lah Lu Lah
Broken Hallelujah
The Girl with Red Hair
After Juliet
The Winter Guest
Sea Urchins
Plays One
All Things Nice
When I Was a Girl, I Used to Scream and Shout and Other Plays
Night Night
The Beast
When I Was a Girl, I Used to Scream and Shout


Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright