We’ve seen tragic deaths in Decky Does A Bronco and Our Bad Magnet, and now DOUGLAS MAXWELL’s killing off the lead character in Helmet. But this time, he’s got three lives.
Words: Louisa Pearson
ougIas Maxwell has been suffering for his
art. 'I was breakdancing yesterday.‘ he says.
‘I was taking the definition of breakdancing to its very. very limit. I was literally proving that I couldn’t sustain my own weight on my arms..
The 27-year-old Scottish playwright has been moving in the name of his latest pIay Helmet. Luckily. he won‘t be onstage during the actual production so his dancing ability isn‘t something that should concern him. His last two plays. Deekv Does A Branea and ()ur Bad Magnet found critical and popular success in Scotland and on tour. and both played at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe.
But before the accolades. he faced dark days. 'I was working in a computer games shop and I'd been writing and writing. but decided to give up.‘ he says. ‘I'd told absolutely everyone I was going to be a playwright. with the kind of confidence that was waning every day I was away from university. I‘d read that Jack Nicholson wanted to spend his 20s doing something he loved. which was acting. and when he turned 30 if he hadn't succeeded he‘d ditch it. So on the week of graduation I decided what I was going to do.’
Three years later and without any visible sign of success on the horizon. Maxwell received a call from TAG Theatre Company to say that a draft of Decky had made its way out of their in-tray and through the Ietterbox of the Performing Arts Lab in Kent. Maxwell saw this workshopping opportunity as his last chance.
With the stakes so high you wouldn’t imagine that come the first day of the lab. he‘d been in the pub at I lam with old friends. listening to a chorus of ‘forget the project and have another pint’. Luckin he chose to ignore their advice. made his way hazin to the lab and over the course of seven days. Helmet was born.
At the lab. Maxwell described his idea as ‘a play about a wee boy stealing money. but structured like a computer game‘. The second half of that sentence caused quite a stir. With
‘Level I and 2‘ replacing 'Scene I and 2’ and a lead character
who has to restart when he loses a life while trying to avoid the dreaded ‘game over' scenario. this was something new. To the extent that director John Retallack phoned the Scottish Arts Council to say ‘there‘s a boy here writing a play in a way that’s never been done before.’
After initial scepticism SAC conlirmed that while there had been plays where scenes are repeated. it had never been done in the form of a computer game. 'I was so lucky.’ recalls Maxwell. ‘1 mean. I didn't think it was particularly lucky to be working in the computer games shop. I thought it was distinctly unlucky.‘
But it was his experience there which shaped Helmet. ‘I wanted to write about the type of kid that I saw in the shop every day. These pale wee guys who couldn‘t speak or make eye
contact. I’d be like: "Do you realise that staring at a computer
screen for eight hours a day is bad for you?" And they‘d say: “Yeah. yeah. yeah. How far can you get on Banjo Ka:aaie'.’" ‘One of them had a great big head of hair and I started calling him Helmet for a laugh and it caught on. He came back in and said: “Stop calling me Helmet. everyone‘s calling
me it at school and I don't like it." I was heartbroken and I called his pals round and said: "His names not Helmet. leave him alone." But he must have told his mum because she shaved his head to get rid of the hair and it turned out it was his head that was that shape.’
Misshapen bonces aside. being idolised by the kids despite being in a minimum wage job and wearing a bright yellow T-shin provided Maxwell with fuel to develop the relationship between Helmet's two lead characters. Sal Kapoor. manager of an ailing computer shop The Zone and Roddy. aka Helmet. who prefers virtual reality to the world around him.
'Helmet‘s theme is meant to be that if your real life is terrible and you've got a fantasy world. what‘s the problem? Is it a feasible alternative?‘ With the aforementioned breakdancing. a set that‘s shrouded in secrecy and acclaimed director John Tiffany at the helm. this play has an appeal beyond the kids who love their PSZs. Maxwell would like to see them in the audience too.
Following the success of Deeky where Grid Iron performed in playgrounds. Maxwell developed a reputation in Iingland as a writer for young people. a tag which he doesn't mind. but which doesn't seem to have caught on in Scotland. ‘Helmet was originally conceived as a play for young people but you don't mention that. in case adults don't turn up.’ hejokes.
In reality. he wants his work to be seen by as many people as possible. ‘Without getting too wanky. there’s no point in theatre being exclusive because it's about human beings sitting in the same room as other human beings. telling a story. Accessibility is not stooping to conquer.‘
Maxwell acknowledges that in his work so far. certain themes have emerged. but he says it takes other people to point them out. ‘Like the kind of man/boy character that pops up all the time where something terrible always happens to him. And there's no sex in any of my pIays.‘
While humping might be relegated to the backseat. Maxwell‘s stories have plenty of tragedy to temper the humour. ‘I5or some reason that‘s my structure.’ he says. 'I start off cracking jokes and then end up getting morose. I'm quite optimistic in a strange way and I don’t like ending on a bad note. I describe this as the ‘Han Solo came back' factor: Solo does his bit. takes his money. you're a bit gutted. but he comes back. Then you get that tingly feeling and that's what you want to end on. In Helmet. the idea of getting to the end of the game is all about that; trying to find a happy ending in something that's definitely not a happy storyf
Right now. all Maxwell’s attention is on Helmet. But in the pipeline are three other works: two with Grid Iron (The Ballad ()f‘James II and larietv. the latter as part of the Edinburgh International Festival) plus .l/Ielmlv for the Traverse.
Filling the King‘s Theatre during the festival is a whole new challenge. but Maxwell‘s looking forward to it with conlidence. 'The thing is. the further up the ladder you get. the more you get to work with good people and the end results get better. We had a reading at the Traverse behind closed doors for .IIt’HM/IY and L'na McLean and Lynn Ferguson did parts. It
just gets better and better.’
Having stuck with the Jack Nicholson philosophy. it seems that Douglas Maxwell's luck is on a roll.
Helmet is at the Traverse, Edinburgh from Tue 12— Sat 30 Mar (previews Fri 8-Sun 10 Mar) before going on tour and ending at the Tron, Glasgow on Wed 5- Sun 9 Jun.
.28 Fen—‘3. Ma: 2002 THE LIST 21