The characters in Douglas Maxwell’s plays are gradually getting older. His early works – Our Bad Magnet, Helmet, the Fringe-First winning Decky Does A Bronco – were about teenagers coming of age.
Fever Dream Southside, at the Citizens in 2015, was about young parents; Charlie Sonata, at the Lyceum early this year, about fortysomethings. In his new play, The Whip Hand, the protagonist – one Douglas Bell – is celebrating his 50th birthday.
“I think that’s how artists and writers have to be,” says Maxwell, now in his mid-40s. “We’re telling stories of the world we’re in. I’m always processing life like that. I can’t work out who’s feeding who, whether life’s feeding the writing or the writing’s feeding the life, but everything I face that’s big – death of parents, getting married, raising kids in a city, losing friends – gets processed through my work.”
Ayrshire-born Maxwell is one of Scotland’s most prolific and popular playwrights. However, having said that his plays are full of “self-portraits of me, my friends, my family, the people in my life, my street, my area”, he can’t identify the point at which Dougie Bell came to him.
The Whip Hand, he says, was “bubbling along for years”. Even after it was written, it continued to bubble; commissioned by Laurie Sansom at the NTS, then moved along when Sansom left to the Traverse and Birmingham Rep, and now being staged as a co-production directed by the Rep’s Tessa Walker. “If my plays are like my kids, this one feels like a foster child, I’m really worried it’s been bounced around the homes. I just want to make sure it’s safe and sound with loving parents – which it is at last.”
Chewing the fat with Maxwell about theatre is never less than fascinating. After 20 years as a playwright, he is a goldmine of information and ideas and can turn his hand to almost anything, from the adaptation of NTS’s Yer Granny, which played to sell-out crowds in some of Scotland’s biggest theatres, to The Silent Treatment, a new commission for a cast of 30 adults with learning difficulties for Lung Ha.
His characteristic style is rooted in the real – “in a world people recognise, with references that they know” – but given to elements of fantasy. Mine weren’t the only eyebrows to rise in Fever Dream Southside when the pterodactyl took to the stage.
He was wary about The Whip Hand because is it “realism, or as near as dammit”. “It’s set in real time, in one room. That was one of the reasons I was reluctant to get going on it because that is not a sexy play. But the power of this play comes from the form, from this well-constructed machine which just ramps and ramps and ramps and eventually roars away. I don’t think you could do it any other way.”
The one room in question is a spacious living room in Glasgow’s Pollokshields, with period cornicing and Ikea furniture. Dougie is celebrating his 50th with his modern-day happy family, his ex-wife Arlene and her partner Lorenzo (it’s their house), his daughter Molly, who is about to leave for university, and nephew Arran. Dougie is about to tell the family about an opportunity he has been offered (to say more would count as a spoiler), which acts as a catalyst for an outbreak of revelations and recriminations. The personal and political become intertwined as the Glasgow living room stretches to contain contentious issues which have implications for Scotland and further afield.
“They’re talking about subject matter (again, no spoilers) that no-one in that room is equipped to deal with. Instead what they’re equipped to deal with is personal grudges and blame. That’s how these things work in my plays. The issue is there, but it’s not being handled by the right people, they’re out of their depth. This isn’t a play where a raw international subject is dealt with rigorously and fairly, with two sides of an argument equally balanced. If the subject matter of the play is like a bottle, it’s smashed on the living room floor.”
The Whip Hand is an angry play, with a deep seam of class tension running through it. Dougie and Arlene grew up in the same housing scheme, but now she has a career and a home in Pollokshields. Dougie, by contrast, is working part-time in a supermarket and living in the box room of his mother’s council house.
“Arlene has jumped a class. Some of the people who’ve read the play were not familiar with the minutiae of the Scottish class system. Arlene and Lorenzo are a social worker and a photographer-turned-computer programmer. They’re not like the middle-class of a London playwright, which could be very close to gentry. But those little shifts matter. I think a lot of the anger in the play comes from that, it’s about identity and status and loyalty.”
Maxwell, who grew up in Girvan, says this is “very much the world I’m in”. “I grew up in a council estate but my mum and dad were teachers, so even in the council estate, people thought I was a different class because there were books in our house and I wasn’t allowed to swear. When my dad got promoted and we moved to a new-build house two minutes round the corner, in my head we might as well have been moving into Downton Abbey.”
He says he wonders if The Whip Hand will “look like a dinosaur” next to the work of a new generation of writers, like his pal Gary McNair, whose Letters to Morrissey and Locker Room Talk are also part of the Traverse programme.
In the two decades Maxwell has been writing, fashion in theatre has shifted from play-writing to theatre-making, to writers who appear in their own work, and use it to discuss their opinions. A play with five characters, a set and a careful structured plot is in danger of appearing “traditional”.
“An audience is hungry for someone’s opinion, and hungry to give an opinion,” Maxwell says. “That’s different from what it used to be. In my work the opinions are there, but they’re hard to find. If you asked me now what my politics were, I wouldn’t tell you. I love verbatim work and those shows where people are discussing an issue, but I don’t write them. For me, fiction, with story and back-story and plot twists and character journeys is [the best way to approach] a subject matter, to somehow get to the deeper water of it.
“Some people I’ve worked with on The Whip Hand have said that I should be clearer on my opinion [about the subject matter in the play]. I’ve always said, no, we need to be vaguer. We need to be in the grey area, we need to make the audience feel uncomfortable for a minute or two.
“I remember the playwright Roy Williams saying he’s not interested in a play that says racism is bad, he’s interested in a play that says racism’s good, because then the audience says, ‘No, it’s not’, and they are involved, in their head and in their gut. That’s when a theatre audience is really alive.”
*The Whip Hand, Traverse Theatre, until 27 August, various times.