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Culture: All hands on deck for tour.

Byline: Terry Grimley meets playwright Douglas Maxwell

Scottish playwright Douglas Maxwell has made something of a speciality of writing for young people.

One of his best-known plays, Helmet, coproduced by Edinburgh's Traverse and Paines Plough in 2002, is taught in many schools with a specially-produced video and textbook. It has been staged in Stuttgart and New York and another of his plays, Our Bad Magnet, has been translated into Korean and Cantonese.

Born in Ayrshire in 1974 and now based in Glasgow, he is currently treasurer of the Scottish writers' union, the Scottish Society of Playwrights.

But recently he's been enjoying himself south of the border, where his latest play The Mother Ship has been produced for this year's Birmingham Rep community tour. Having done the rounds of schools in and around Birmingham, it's just settled in for a run in the Rep's studio, The Door.

It will also be playing for a week at the Traverse. "It's been a breeze," he told me when we met during rehearsals. "They're doing a tech technical rehearsal at the moment and I usually avoid them like the plague, but I'm actually quite enjoying this one. You're bringing to the schools the best production you can bring - there's great direction, great sound, and all that comes to the school."

The Mother Ship is a story about two teenage brothers, the younger of whom is disabled as the result of a near - drowning incident as a small boy.

"The elder brother came up with this whole mythology that he's an alien. It's a childlike story,"

Maxwell explains.

"They're living with their stepmum, having lost both mum and dad. The elder brother goes off to find the younger brother, and all this stuff from their mythology seems to be coming true.

So it's like a road-movie adventure.

"When you're working with actors that have disabilities, the first kneejerk assumption is that there's a lesson - but who wants to be taught a lesson?

"If there's an underlying theme, it's about belief, that belief has helped them. People believe in science fiction, believe in religion, believe they're going to be successful or not successful. But I wanted it to be very enjoyable, fast and gripping, not going in first with a theme and meaning and depth. It should be a blast first and foremost."

Although he has been prolific and well produced since the start of the 21st century, Maxwell's writing career took a long time to take off.

"I had been writing play after play. I think I wrote 20-odd, and I was thinking about giving up when I was phoned up by an organisation based in Kent which is a kind of Big Brother house for writers. John Retallack is the director running it and the playwright Bryony Lavery was there."

That experience gave birth to the play which became Helmet and pushed Maxwell down the path of writing for young audiences.

"I suppose I'm more known for writing for young people. As a 33-year-old man I won't say I know what they want, but I know they don't want boredom and pretentiousness.

"You have to remember you're not in competition with Harry Potter, you're in competition with double physics. There's an audience who will tell you, literally shout out or literally make noise, if they are bored. You will know by the end. It's a highwire act, but on the other side, when it does work it's really rewarding.

"In Helmet there's a scene where a boy is kissing a girl in her bedroom and he goes a bit too far and she has to react. At that point the audience went completely silent and they were watching it like they were watching the news.

I'm trying to make that kind of connection, without being preachy."

Helmet has recently been revived by the National Theatre of Scotland, a company which in a mere two years of existence has already had a remarkable impact despite - or possibly because - it has no permanent home.

"Scotland is having a complete renaissance at the moment," says Maxwell. "We've got this really exciting play, Black Watch, which has played New York, Washington, Australia and New Zealand over the last two years, and it's done that without London.

"Our National Theatre doesn't have a building.

After 15 years of campaigning we just assumed it would be some old fart doing longwinded productions of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and suddenly when Vicky Featherstone got the job it was these spectacular site-specific pieces. On Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow the only play they've heard of is Black Watch."

It's an interesting turnaround, considering that only a few years ago, when Hamish Glen moved from Dundee Rep to the Belgrade Theatre, there seemed to be a shift of momentum from Scotland to the English regions - devolution having apparently not delivered the expected cultural renaissance.

"Devolution has slowly had an effect, I think.

When the SNP took over they celebrated with a performance of Black Watch and people queued out all night.

"It's an interesting time in Scotland now. You have established writers like Liz Lochhead and people who have moved to Scotland after Glasgow was capital of culture.

"I think the feeling is it's a great place to make theatre. Really it started in the 1960s with folk music meeting political rallies, if you think of those 7:84 shows with Billy Connolly - a lot of direct action, comedy and tragedy. What we don't have is a traditional idea of how to do a play. We don't have a Tennessee Williams or a Samuel Beckett, we don't have a template.

There was a time when Dario Fo was having more productions in Scotland than he was in Italy because that fits in with the culture.

"It sometimes seems a bit rough. And then in the 1990s you had David Greig, who is far more influenced by European theatre, and Anthony Neilson, who came out of the Sarah Kane/Mark Ravenhill school."

Whatever the differences between Scotland and England, there is a general assumption in Britain that the health of theatre has a fairly direct relationship to the state of contemporary writing. So it's interesting to hear about Douglas Maxwell's experience of writing classes with young people in Russia.

"I was over there with the Traverse doing a thing called Class Act. It was a bit of a struggle in Russia because they don't have the same focus on new writing. Someone said why would we want a living playwright when we've got Chekhov?

"We agreed to differ on that one. But when the kids' plays were on it was packed with 200 young people and it was like a football match."

"You have to remember you're not in competition with Harry Potter, you're in competition with double physics Douglas Maxwell

The Mother Ship is at The Door, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, until March 15. Box office: 0121 236 4455

CAPTION(S):

The emphasis is very much on energy in Douglas Maxwell's latest play, The Mother Ship. Inset is the author
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 5, 2008
Words:1177
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