Glyn Maxwell is one of poetry's rising stars. Now he wants to be taken seriously as a dramatist. What's he playing at?

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The Independent Culture
Every so often over the last couple of centuries, some poet or other has decided that where English theatre went wrong was when it abandoned verse in favour of ordinary, prosy dialogue, and has set out to show the conventional playwrights a thing or two. Usually, this has turned out to be a mistake: what looks good on the page has turned out rather less appealing in the full glare of the footlights. Byron, Shelley and Tennyson all had a go at verse tragedy - reputedly with limited success, though since none of them has achieved a permanent place in the repertory it's hard to say (Shelley's unwieldy tragedy The Cenci is occasionally and very unwisely revived; the RSC is staging Byron's Cain next month). Hardy's The Dynasts has still never been performed in its sprawling entirety; Eliot and Auden have done a little better, though Murder in the Cathedral aside, their stuff is still more familiar from radio productions and anthologies than from actual stagings.

Because of this track record, producers have been reluctant to commission original verse drama. Many of the finest living poets have written successfully for the stage - Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott. But they are all best known for their "versions" of other writers: the great French dramatists (Moliere, Racine), or the Greek classics (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Homer). Even Harrison, a confirmed hitmaker, wasn't let loose on anything wholly original until Square Rounds at the National in 1992.

Given this state of affairs, you wonder why Glyn Maxwell wants to give up a perfectly good career in poetry to write plays - The Heart in Hiding, the story of a vanishing rock star who is tracked down by two of his fans, opens at BAC on Wednesday, the first professional staging of any of his work. As a poet, he's been doing very nicely over the last five years. His first collection, Tale of the Mayor's Son (1990) was shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday / John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Sunday Times Young Writer's Award; the second, Out of the Rain (1992) was shortlisted for the Whitbread Poetry Prize and won the Somerset Maugham Award; his first novel, Blue Burneau (1994), was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Prize. He was one of the 20 "New Generation" poets in the Poetry Society's recent promotion. He hangs out with Nobel Prize-winners - he studied under Derek Walcott, his book jackets come with extravagant compliments from Joseph Brodsky ("a poet of immense promise and unforgettable delivery"), and in conversation the latest Laureate is "Seamus" rather than "Heaney".

It's doubtful whether any of this will do him any good in the theatre, though: "It always is a surprise to me how little the poetry world knows about the theatre and how little the theatre knows about poetry." He first came across this phenomenon two years ago when an anthology of his plays was published by Chatto and Windus: Gnyss the Magnificent sold "like crap", according to Maxwell ("Unless they're performed, plays sell even worse than poetry"); just as galling, though, were the reviews. Not that they were bad - far from it, in fact: the three plays inspired phrases like "triumphantly original" and "wonderfully funny" in the Independent on Sunday - but they were all written by poets and poetry reviewers, who treated them as an extension of his poetry. "I never had any idea that these were being written for the page, they were written to be put on ... Why not give them to a drama critic, let them say whether they'll work on stage, or at least take a guess."

Maxwell himself has no doubts whatsoever: "I've seen them on stage: they do work." He's referring here to the celebrated back-garden amateur performances of his plays which he has been putting on at his parents' home in Welwyn Garden City since 1991, attracting large local crowds and a surprising amount of national media attention (features in broadsheet newspapers; a photo-shoot in Vogue).

The first play performed was The Birthday Ball of Zelda Nein - one of the three in the Chatto collection, a five-act satire on the manners of the extremely rich. He had written the play in 1988 while studying with Walcott in Boston, but had then set it aside for three years. He picked it up again in 1991, when his playwriting career began in earnest: in the same year he wrote The Last Crossing of Isolde, "because a friend of mine knew some people at the Almeida and there was a chance we might get something on, but it had to be verse, and it had to be Tristan and Isolde." After that there came Gnyss the Magnificent (performed at Welwyn in 1993) and The Radgold Games (performed at Welwyn in 1995).

Then Maxwell got in touch with the theatre director Greg Doran, claiming mutual acquaintance with Derek Walcott, whose version of The Odyssey Doran had directed for the RSC. Doran gave him the subject of his next play, Wolfpit - the mysterious appearance of two green children in 12th-century Sussex - and tried it out at the National Theatre Studio in 1993.

What all these plays had in common were their scale (five acts, cast of 30 or more), their formality (iambic pentameter) and the fact that they were set either in the past or in some mythical time out of time - Maxwell was quoted at the time as saying "I don't want to write plays which show you the state of England now; I prefer the freedom of myth." You could take this scale as evidence that Maxwell wasn't really thinking about having his plays performed, but he vehemently contradicts this idea: with Zelda Nein, for instance, "It was written for nine, and when I started this thing in my garden I realised I had more than nine friends who were good actors" - so that the enormous casts were a response to rather than a denial of performance demands.

The demands of the professional theatre are different, though: Broken Journey, another project in tandem with Doran, was the first to break away from that template, with a contemporary setting and smaller cast. For The Heart in Hiding, a commission from the Damned Poets theatre company - "I think Tony Harrison was busy" - he's gone down to three acts and five characters. This isn't purely a matter of practicality. He thinks "The more characters you have, the more you're confining yourself is what I'm discovering. I think the best number of people to have on a stage is three: if one of them wants to get off and one of them wants to stay there, and the other one is caught between those two, I think you can't get much better than that." With these two plays, he says, "I really believe I've cut loose of all the influences and I'm doing something new."

For a first-time playwright, then, Maxwell has an awful lot of experience and an impressive reputation behind him - and he's never had to translate Moliere. Whether he really has come up with an entirely novel and watchable form of poetic drama is something that critics and audiences can decide this week. For himself, he is certain that theatre is where his future lies. In rehearsals over the last few weeks, he says, he has had the feeling that he has come home: "It's been waiting for me, and it's taken me a while to find it. But now I've moved in and I'm starting to decorate."

n 'The Heart in Hiding' at the BAC, London, SW11 (0171-223 2223) Wed- 10 Dec