“Will half an hour be long enough for this?” an affable Douglas Maxwell asks the Herald's photographer following a mid-afternoon interview in the foyer of the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, where one of his two new plays, Fever Dream: Southside, opens this week. “It's just that the schools are off and it's a nightmare for childcare just now.”
The Herald, April 21st 2015
If this incident alone suggests that Maxwell's world has changed since his work last graced our stages, the subjects of these new pieces confirms it. Maxwell's early works such as Decky Does A Bronco, staged in a swing-park in 2000 by the Grid Iron company, and Our Bad Magnet, which appeared at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow the same year, looked at small town boys, outsiders and terminal adolescents undergoing some kind of rites of passage, usually brought on by tragedy.
These themes continued in the computer game based Helmet, Mancub and the epic If Destroyed True, but they were all more than a decade ago now, and more recent works, such as Promises Promise and A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity, have seen Maxwell move into more grown-up territory.
With Fever Dream: Southside, however, and to a lesser extent with Yer Granny, an audacious-sounding adaptation of an Argentinian comedy produced with an all star cast led by Gregor Fisher for the National Theatre of Scotland, Maxwell seems to have taken another leap. His embrace of a new sense of responsibilities is as clear in the way he talks as much as in the work which has resulted from it.
“The play's been in the works for seven years,” says Maxwell. “It was written first of all when my oldest daughter was born, and we were living on the Southside, and the area round there was starting to change. It was written at a point where I was experiencing sleeplessness as a young father, panic, because my dad had just died, so there was a worry about a lack of father figure as well as being a father figure living in an area that was kind of wobbly.
“There was a wave of immigrants that had come in, we had a homeless hostel at the bottom of our street, so we had a lot of characters on our street, and things weren't particularly matching up to my idea of what being a dad was, because I didn't know what being a dad was. So it was written in the middle of all that madness.”
Maxwell was approached by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where a one-act version of the play was performed by students. This was seen by Guy Hollands of the Citz, who suggested Maxwell write a second act. Maxwell wasn't sure he had one.
“Things had changed,” he says, “or maybe it was just me that had changed. The area had calmed down, the hostel had changed its criteria and is just a back-packing hostel now, citizens had become motivated and more active. They'd cleaned the street up, the Southside had done its thing with immigration, which it's been doing since the Irish came, in that it takes a bit of time, but in they go and they're all Glaswegian now. That had happened, and I felt like I wasn't telling the right story. That first half that the students did was bleak and full of fear.
“The play is a thriller, and there's a lot of threat in that first half. There's a lot of talk of monsters, and people being scared of where they are. I knew the second half had to tell the other half of the story, which is a rise to activism, and which asks the question what point do you get involved? Naturally I don't get involved. I'm not a joiner-in-er. I don't sign petitions or anything like that, but I thought, I'm gonna' have to. I can't just sit and moan about everything, so I had to work out who do I fight?, what do I say?, where do I stand?, and how do I become that father figure? The play's full of that. It's about the fear of a community on the one hand, and the need for a community on the other.”
While his quiff of old may have been tamed and his beard is less flamboyant, for all his apparent growing up in public, Maxwell nevertheless retains a sense of the fantastical. This element of his work, sired as much in music hall as contemporary pop culture, comes to the fore in Yer Granny.
Based on Argentinian writer Roberto Cossa's outrageous hit play, La Nona, Yer Granny focuses on a diabolical 100 year old grandmother who is literally eating her family out of house and home, to the extent that the family chip shop has been bankrupted and the shelves are starting to look increasingly bare.
“This woman is a monster,” says Maxwell of a character played onstage by Rab C Nesbitt actor Gregor Fisher alongside the cream of popular theatre and TV. “She just has this one instinct, which is to eat. It's a comedy, but with a dark heart.
“Graham McLaren, who's directing it, came to me with the whole package, and we talked about a version Les Dawson did on television, and we talked about David Kane's play, Dumbstruck, and about Joe Orton. Gregor Fisher keeps asking what the play means, and I don't think there's an easy answer to that. Graham thinks it's about the state, but I'm not sure. I think there's something going on there about a more personal form of selfishness.”
For all Yer Granny's ridiculousness, then, it too reflects Maxwell's new set of priorities, rooted in old-fashioned values which his work is starting to reflect more and more. In Fever Dream: Southside, Maxwell is talking about a sense of community, not in some rabble-rousing party political way, but in a smaller, more localised shift in collective consciousness.
In this respect, while Maxwell seems to have found a reinvigorated sense of purpose in life as much as art, there's ambition too.
“It feels different for me,” Maxwell says of Fever Dream: Southside. “It feels bigger, like there's a lot at stake. I want to challenge myself to write something bigger and better.”
He takes a rare pause. “To see if I can get into Europe,” he laughs, the whip-smart, pop music and football-referencing adolescent once again. “To see if I can get into the top four.”
Fever Dream: Southside, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, April 23-May 9; Yer Granny, Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, May 19-21, King's Theatre, Glasgow, May 26-30, then touring.www.citz.co.uk
The Herald, April 21st 2015