A living room somewhere in the UK, today; it belongs to Stevie, a disillusioned academic who once wrote a book on youth movements in Britain. The doorbell rings, and on the doorstep is a young asylum seeker, Jimmy, who firmly believes that his passion for all things Mod will provide him with a passport to safety and freedom; he needs a reference and a testimonial, and believes Stevie is the man to provide it.
This is the beginning of Douglas Maxwell’s new play I Can Go Anywhere, which opens at the Traverse this weekend; and although his work – in 20 years as one of Scotland’s leading playwrights – has covered a huge range in terms of style, scale, and situation, this latest Maxwell play still hints at themes that often recur in his work, including questions around young men and how they construct their identity, and – more recently – an increasingly tough and argumentative inquiry into the whole concept of belonging in the 21st century, and the unspoken assumptions and suppressed histories that often surround ideas of nation or community.
“I think I’ve always been fascinated by the question ‘can I come in?’” says Maxwell, whose very first play Our Bad Magnet, produced at the Tron in 2000, describes an implosion among a group of friends growing up in small-town Scotland, which ends tragically for one of them. “When they’re growing up, young people often ask themselves which tribe they belong to, in terms of music or whatever – and of course, events like the 2014 referendum in Scotland raise all sorts of questions about what we mean by belonging to a nation in the 21st century. We have so many ways of policing entry into a group or even a relationship – do you know enough? how committed are you? – all of that. I’ve wanted for a while to write something about home and place, and all the different ways we define those things; and I hope this play really focuses those arguments down.”
Maxwell grew up in Girvan in the 1970s and 80s, and says that although he saw very little theatre as a child – just the occasional Ayr Gaiety Whirl or Christmas panto – he started to do theatre at school almost before he knew what it was. It wasn’t until he went to Stirling University, though, that he realised writing was the discipline for him. “I wasn’t good enough as an actor, and I didn’t have the temperament for directing,” he says, “but when it came to writing, I just seemed to know what I wanted to do.” So after he graduated in 1995, Maxwell went to Glasgow, to live on a shoestring in a shared flat on the South Side, and just write. He had written 22 plays in five years by the time Neil Murray agreed to stage This Bad Magnet at the Tron in 2000; and he says he still wonders where that determination to keep writing came from. “It was a kind of clarity,” he says, “both about what I could do, and about what I couldn’t. I just knew this was the work for me.”
That first production led on to an astonishingly wide-ranging career, which almost shuddered to a halt at an early stage when the Edinburgh International Festival and Grid Iron staged Maxwell’s 2003 play Variety, an unsettling meditation on the cruelty and strangeness of the world of variety theatre that was widely damned as a failure. Maxwell was saved, though, by a residency at Edinburgh University which gave him an opportunity to read more Scottish drama, and to rethink his approach to playwriting; and today, he has a thriving side-career as a workshop leader and mentor of younger playwrights, although he definitely sees that area of work as secondary to his own playwriting.
“I think you lose your potency as a teacher,” says Maxwell, “if you don’t put the playwriting first”; and his record of more than 30 plays produced since 2000 certainly commands respect. They range from Grid Iron’s 2000 production of the playground drama Decky Does A Bronco, through explorations of teenage boyhood in Helmet (2002) and Mancub (2005), to the intense monologue Promises, Promises (2010), in which a semi-retired female teacher struggles with the new world of identity politics. Recently, there have been three larger-scale plays of huge ambition, from the surreal Fever Dream: Southside at the Citizens’ in 2015, to The Whip Hand at the Traverse in 2017 – a troubling tragedy-farce about a Scottish family’s deep historic complicity in the slave trade – and, also in 2017, his exquisite Charlie Sonata at the Lyceum, the story of a forty-something male life gone badly wrong, that finds a magical moment of redemption at the last.
“One of the key things about my writing life is that I’ve very rarely written to a commission,” says Maxwell, who still lives on the south side of Glasgow with his wife Caroline Newall, the National Theatre of Scotland’s acting artistic director, and their daughters. “I’ve always just written, and then tried to make a love-match with a theatre for each play. It’s risky, but for me, it’s been the best way. And one of the most satisfying things is that having been around for a while now, I can begin to see how my plays have meant something to successive generations of Scottish theatre-makers. I think the generation of Scottish playwrights emerging at the moment – Isobel MacArthur, Ellie Stewart, Morna Young, all those new voices – is the most exciting I’ve ever seen; and I like to think of that conversation going on down the generations, so that just as Liz Lochhead and John Byrne’s work meant something to me when I first read it or saw it, so my work means something too, to the brilliant writers emerging now.” Joyce McMillan
I Can Go Anywhere is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 21 December