Xana Marwick had not long given birth to her first child when she started writing the play that would become Nests, which opens in Edinburgh this weekend as part of a month long tour. The original idea was to do a new version of Hansel and Gretel enabled by a bursary from Playwrights Studio Scotland. The initial result, under the mentorship of fellow writer Clare Duffy, was by Marwick’s own admission “all over the place. I was really sleep deprived, and started writing this demented version of the story, which had this ghost boy in it.”
Only later, while in residence at Summerhall, did Marwick ditch the fairytale elements of the story. This was on the advice of playwright Douglas Maxwell.
“He read the play, and asked what I was actually interested in, which was the boy and this father character, and Douglas just said to forget about Hansel and Gretel and concentrate on that.”
A reading of Marwick’s play at Imaginate children’s theatre festival led to an approach by Heather Fulton, director of Moray-based children and young people’s theatre company, Frozen Charlotte. This led to Frozen Charlotte co-producing Nests with Marwick’s Stadium Rock company for the current tour.
“The story is about a boy who turns up starving with his pet crow outside a caravan where an alcoholic middle-aged man lives,” says Marwick. “They start off being suspicious of each other, but the boy uncovers a secret about the man that changes things. For me, the play is definitely about poverty, and about how some young people can fall through the net because of that poverty, but it’s mainly about adult responsibility, and adults who think they’re woke, but who can’t see what young people might be going through.”
Much of the impetus for the play stems in part from Marwick’s personal and professional experience with young people.
“Both are really important,” she says. “I’ve worked with young people for years in areas like Easterhouse and Niddrie, and some of those young people I’ve worked with have slipped through the net like the boy in the play, because their families aren’t getting the support they need. Even so, these young people are incredibly resilient, and I hope the play reflects the positive aspects of that.”
On a more personal level, writing Nests so soon after having her son was born opened Marwick up to something even closer to home.
“Your mind goes back to your own childhood in this solipsistic kind of way,” she reflects. “I didn’t have a life anything like the boy in the play, but I definitely didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth either. My life then was quite chaotic. I was entitled to free school meals and we lived in single bedroom flats. All the grown-ups around me were very loving and quite hippyish, but there was also drug addiction and people in prison, that kind of thing, and I think having my son made me think about how I don’t want him to grow up like that, and also made me question what an adult’s responsibilities actually are.”
Marwick maintains that “the story’s totally not autobiographical, and the boy in it isn’t based on any one of the young people I’ve worked with, but there are young people who are vulnerable, and who think adults know what they’re doing when they really don’t.”
Marwick is a graduate of what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama’s Contemporary Theatre Practice course, and Nests sounds a far cry from her early live art work.
“For me then, the most important thing was experimenting, and just trying to find my voice,” she says. “I suppose I always wanted to write, but I didn’t feel I had a place doing that.”
Marwick had directed her own work from a young age, and her move into creating work for young people shifted her perspective. A version of Hansel and Gretel that did make it to the stage at Platform in Easterhouse changed everything.
“It was originally going to be devised,’ she says, “but then I panicked. The show was going to be seen by 2,000 people, and was being paid for by the venue. What if I started devising it and it ended up being crap? So I wrote it, and to my surprise it worked well.”
Marwick ended up being selected to take part in the BBC’s Writers Room scheme.
“That was it,” she says. “I could call myself a writer.”
On the eve of Nests taking flight, Marwick’s second child is due to be born in January. With several writing projects at various stages of development including episodes for a new CBBC series, how this affects things remains to be seen. Given that Nests was born in part from her experience of becoming a mum, things might well work to her advantage.
“That whole sleep-deprives year was one of the most creative times I’ve ever had,” she says. “My brain worked in this really strange way, so it was like being on drugs or something.”
While dealing with serious issues, Nests is leavened by a playfulness which has filtered through all her work.
“The most important thing that I want to get over is that it’s an intriguing story,” she says, “and I’d like people to come away from it thinking about the responsibility adults have towards young people. Discussions about poverty are happening already, but hopefully Nests will give people some kind of idea about what young people are capable of.”
Coming from the background she did, Marwick is more aware of this than many.
“I come from a really confusing background, class-wise,” she says. “I left school at fifteen and never looked back, and it was only as I got older that I became much more aware of all that.”
Marwick has started putting the age she left school on her CV.
“I’m not saying I’m living some kind of Hollywood lifestyle or anything,” she says, “because I’m really not. But if young people see that, it might make them think, and maybe realise that just because you leave school when you’re that age that you’re not a write-off.”
Nests, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Friday-Saturday; Tron Theatre, Glasgow, September 13-15; Byre Theatre, St Andrew’s, September 20; Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling, September 21; Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, September 22; Paisley Arts Centre, September 26; The Barn, Banchory, September 27; James Milne Institute, Findhorn, September 28; Banff Academy, September 29.
The Herald, September 4th 2018