Promises Promises - Douglas Maxwell interview
Douglas Maxwell talks to Steve Cramer about teaching and its side effects, explored in his new monologue for Random Accomplice and the Tron
With The Miracle Man, his play for the NTS slated to open in March, Douglas Maxwell will be in familiar territory. Spotty trauma, adolescent angst and the icky business of entering into the adult world are house themes for Maxwell, and this new work, in the tradition of Our Bad Magnet, Decky Does a Bronco and Helmet, looks to deliver the same warm humour and everyday tragedy as these much acclaimed pieces. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that Maxwell has also developed a vein of writing which examines older characters, and Promises, Promises, his new monologue for Random Accomplice and the Tron, falls promisingly into this category.
The narrator of Maxwell’s play is an older woman, a Scot living in London. Her surname, Brodie, acts as a curse, given her profession. ‘She’s a retired, disgraced teacher who’s been brought in to cover a teacher on sick leave at her school,’ explains Maxwell. ‘It’s based on a true story, which a teacher friend of mine in London told me. One of her students was a Somalian girl who was an elective mute – that is, there was no physiological reason that she couldn’t speak, but she didn’t. The school brought in community leaders to exorcise her, because they believed she had a devil inside her. So they came and did their ceremonies in the classroom in front of this six-year-old girl.
‘I asked my friend to tell me that story time and again, and I knew I wanted to write about it from a long time back.’
The tale, from which Maxwell has created a fictional central character and story, is worth the telling. ‘To be honest, my first response was, “What the fuck was the school doing, allowing that situation to arise in a school?” But I guess they had their reasons,’ Maxwell says. ‘That said, I’m not really interested in a straight down the line piece of fact, I like story, I like fiction, so this character, the teacher, her personal story had to overtake the story of the girl being exorcised.’
Maxwell’s parents, and much of his extended family were teachers, and part of the fascination with the character of an elderly teacher with a multitude of problems, not least among them alcoholism, comes from dilemmas faced within the profession. ‘Often this bitterness comes at the end of a teacher’s career – they feel used and spat out by the system. It’s rare for teachers to feel invigorated at the end of a career. Often it’s about the powers that be, whether it’s constantly changing government policy, local authorities or the way the school itself is run,’ he says. ‘But there are other things within this character that are very self destructive, and she can’t help herself. She’s her own worst enemy, and the damage runs very deep, for various reasons to do with her past. It’s a monologue, so the whole story is seen through her eyes, and she thinks she’s brilliant, but actually she’s the worst possible person to be in this situation.’
With Joanna Tope, one of Scotland’s most distinguished and underused performers delivering Maxwell’s monologue, this new work looks well worth playing truant for.
Promises Promises, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Wed 3–Sat 6 Feb, then touring.