The Last Ten Minutes Are Pretty Explosive
Playwright, Douglas Maxwell on his latest play, The Whip Hand
What was your inspiration for writing The Whip Hand?
I honestly can't remember. Usually my plays have specific autobiographical beginnings. But this one had been brewing in the back of my mind for so long that where it came from is lost to me now. In fact I used to worry that if I sat on this thing for much longer someone else would come along with the same idea and steal my thunder.
I think I was reluctant to write it not because of the subject matter but because of the style. I knew it would have to play in “real time” in one room, which isn't the sexiest way to do a play nowadays. And it's difficult. It takes a lot of old-school playwriting skill to keep that stuff flying. But actually that's where a lot of the play's power comes from.
What three words would you use to sum up the play?
As anyone who has seen my plays will know, I rarely use as few as three words to describe anything. But, as my hand is forced…
Dramatic. Involving. Truthful.
How do you want audiences to feel having watched The Whip Hand?
Playwriting is about holding the audience's attention and moving us from one state to another.
With The Whip Hand I want to grip people with the characters and the premise, but to keep the ground beneath our feet ever-shifting with the story. Hopefully by shifting tones, assumptions, expectations and loyalties, it'll mean that we're always questioning our own attitudes to what the characters are talking about.
…the way we'll feel at the end is hard to predict.
Ideally though, at the end, hearts will be pounding…
Do you have a favourite line or moment in the play?
There's a big speech about a third of the way in that changes absolutely everything. And there's a character who stays quite quiet for the first act, but when he gets going things really rev up. And the last ten minutes are pretty explosive.
If you could spend a day with a character from one of your plays, who would it be and what would you do together?
I know this will sound pretentious and awful, but I feel like I spend too much time with my characters as it is. They're not enigmatic or unknown to me, as they are to many writers. They're sometimes just versions of myself – or versions of aspects of myself. Sometimes they're straight from my day-to-day life. But, again at the high risk of sounding completely insufferable, I do love them. I don't start writing a play until I get a big sore pang of empathy for all of the characters.
Can you tell us about the first play you wrote?
It was an adaptation of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg. I ran a wee theatre company when I was at University (and co-founded the Stirling University Musical Society fact fans!). I did an English Literature degree and asked if I could write a play for my honours dissertation. I was the first person to ever do that, I think, so they had no idea how to mark it – which worked well in my favour. It was an unreadable undergraduate piece of pretentious pseudo-intellectual nonsense. But I staged it in the MacBob with a cast of thousands, it went down a storm and I was addicted for life.
Not including the stuff I wrote for youth theatres and business conferences, I wrote twenty one full-length plays before I finally wrote a good one.
The Whip Hand runs until 16 September.