Fever Dream: Southside - A Portrait of the Writer

Writer Douglas Maxwell's new play Fever Dream: Southside gets its first performance next Saturday 25 April at the Citizens Theatre. 

A colourful representation of our very own neighbourhood, Fever Dream: Southside was actually created as a self-portrait of the writer and the feelings he had about his community shortly after the birth of his first child.  

Writer Douglas Maxwell. Credit Stuart Black

Here's Douglas explaining his inspiration for the play in his own words:

I was scared.

We had just had our first daughter and my wife had returned to work after six months of maternity leave.  I went part time.  In the mornings I wrote and in the afternoons I looked after my baby.  I didn’t feel I was doing either job particularly well. I needed something to blame. I looked out of my window.

We lived in Albert Avenue, in Govanhill on the Southside of Glasgow.  Although when asked I would say, “Queens Park”.  At the bottom of the street was a hostel.  There was a lot of foot traffic coming and going from that place;  a lot of street fights and screaming; loads of drunks; fast-walking junkies going one way, slow-nodding junkies coming the other.  I had to lift the buggy over slumped bodies on our doorstep more than once.  I shouldered past guys who were leaning at 45 degrees into a gale that wasn’t there.  I averted my eyes from prostitutes on their way to work.  I hated these people.

Map of Govanhill

The street was suddenly full of new faces.  At that point the politically correct term was “gypsy travellers”.  We don’t say that anymore.  On the upside, the street had a raucous, old fashioned atmosphere.  Kids played out till all hours and they were open, friendly and hilarious.  It was like living on a road full of Oor Wullies.  I once saw a well-known eight year old try to steal a full-sized digger from a building site.   People hollered from open windows and everybody seemed to be singing.  Four part male harmonies boomed down alleys at 3 am. 

On the downside it was unsettled and mercurial and occasionally threatening.  Neighbours would beg for money, in the street and in the close.  You’d put the bins out and there would be children and old women in the wheelies, openly going through the rubbish.  They’d say thanks when you handed over the binbag.  It was hard to know how to react.

The gates to Queen's Park on Glasgow's Southside

One afternoon, walking along Victoria Road, a rat came out of the entrance to Queens Park Station, just in front of me.  It didn’t scuttle – it swaggered.  That was what was so terrifying.  Unafraid in broad daylight! I stopped dead in my tracks.  Everyone did.  Shopping bags dropped and people screamed.  The rat calmly crossed the road and disappeared off into Govan Hill.  Like a commuter, heading home.  For all the ancient coldness that it stirredup, deep down within us, it may as well have been some kind of prehistoric beast. 

One weekend we’d had enough and needed to escape.  We were running away to Crewe to see my in-laws.  They had a garden. We longed for a garden.  I longed for the seaside. 

As my wife was loading my daughter into the car I took a bin bag down the alley into our back green.  I unlocked the gate and gasped.  Standing in the bin area was a woman wearing a full length fur coat and a mini skirt.  She had mascara smeared all over her face.  Blonde hair standing straight up – electro shock style – it might have been a wig.  She was swaying, frozen to the spot in broken high heels.  She had no idea where she was.  When she saw me she wet herself.   Like an animal.  Standing up.  Unnoticed.  Then she said, “don’t tell him, don’t tell him, don’t tell him…” over and over and over and over…

She was like a ghost. 

I dumped the bin bag, turned my back on the woman, got into the car and said to my wife…“drive”.  But it crossed my mind…the way you feel now…your lack of basic empathy for that women…does that not make you more of a monster than whatever you’re scared ofout there in the park at night? 

My dad had died shortly before my daughter was born.  They passed each other in the wings. I was thinking a lot about father figures.  I could’ve done with a mentor.  But there was no time for that.  I was a father now.  It was up to me to come up with a plan and my mind was blank.  All I could think was if I had money everything would be better.  I desperately wanted to be rich. I wanted to be one of those cruel billionaires who didn’t care about anything.  They didn’t need to care. They watched the world from behind the glass of their owner’s box. 

Artwork by Stephen O'Neil
I saw two young teenage missionaries, probably Mormons, sitting on the bollards at Prince Edward Street,under the neon Christ Died For Our Sins sign that’s bolted to the wall above the bank.  They were sharing something from a Greggs bag.  They looked beyond miserable.  They looked abandoned.  They looked like victims.   They looked like children without parents.  I thought, “you need to get out of here”.

But things change…

Following some local activism the hostel altered its policy.  There were no more junkies, no more prostitutes, no more street fights.  (Incredibly, despite all my bitching and finger pointing, I refused to sign the petition to close the place. That’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to my hypocrisy and weird, unworkable personal credo which says the most important thing in life is never to impose your will on anyone else.)

Then the artists moved in.  The hipsters, young and working, appeared in the empty garages and cheap spaces,  like some kind of natural reaction.  Buds.  And what a difference! Suddenly there are “happenings” and cafes and gigs.  I’m sure someone has made a study of the impact of working artists on an area, but it cannot be overstated in the case of the Southside.  The Roma families were shifted to another part of Govanhill – across the gulf of Victoria Road.  I couldn’t hear the singing anymore.

We were talking seriously now about getting out.  We had money for a deposit.  On one walk down Vicky Road I was ranting to my wife about my desire for real community.  My fear of this place.  But I couldn’t get to the end of my sentence because I was saying hi to so many people.  Most of them I couldn’t put a name to: fellow new parents I’d see on my buggy walks, faces from the boozer or from shops, loads of theatre folk…wait a minute.  This is community.  We have it.  This is community in a different shape to the community I grew up in, yes, – this is a city -  but it is community in a tangible sense. 

In the end we didn’t leave.  Instead we moved to a bigger flat, just two minutes from Albert Avenue, round the corner in Niddrie Square.  And I love it.  It’s my home.

Led by a crew of good people, many with young families, Albert Avenue organised. It was cleaned up and there were social events planned.   I felt guilty.  Although I did turn up to a few of these things I’m no activist, no organiser.  I’m just not a “joiner in-er”.  It’s not laziness, it’s my nature. The older I get the more I want to disappear from sight. 

But at what point must you leave that isolationist impulse behind?  When do you fight?  Who do you fight when it comes to making your world safe for your kids…to get the community you want…the community you need?

This is a play about all of those things.  In a sense it’s a series of short stories which intertwine and resolve together.  There are fathers and mothers and children without parents; there are mentors and mentees; good monsters and bad; there are those who want to destroy and those who want to build; those who fight and those who are the victims of battles long lost; people who become public andactive,and those who disappear…phantoms. 
Fever Dream:Southside Director and Citizens Theatre Artistic Director Dominic Hill 
A very different version of the first half was staged as a reading by students of The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and directed by Amanda Gaughan a few years ago.  Guy Hollands saw that reading and felt that this was a play which should come to the Citizens.  Dominic Hill read it and agreed.  Dominic has produced shows of mine over the years (If Destroyed True at Dundee Rep and Spring Awakening at The Traverse) but he has never directed anything of mine.   

Frances Poet has been the dramaturg and a vital collaborator with us as the script grew in scope, size and complexity.  Many times I would run aground and Frances would be able to steer me back into motion with enthusiasm and perception.  At one point she said “this play is about the need for community but at the same time it’s about the fear of community.”  That was a really important observation. 

Fever Dream: Southside is not a portrait of the Southside of Glasgow, despite the title.  It’s a self-portrait.  The Southside is in the background, warped and distorted.  It’s a reflection on how I felt, not what was actually happening.

This is a play about raising children in a city.

Fever Dream: Southside previews on Thursday 23 and Friday 24 April and opens on Saturday 25 April until Saturday 9 May.