“It’s a strange kind of dream time.” Talented playwright, artist, screenwriter and children’s novelist Philip Ridley is talking to me about how it feels finally to be kicking his new play Shivered out of the front door and into the world. But he could also be describing the past few years of his career.
From the 2008 revival of Ridley’s second play The Fastest Clock in the Universe to this year’s acclaimed re-staging of his first,The Pitchfork Disney, critics have been tripping over each other to praise him. And it hasn’t just been old work given a new lick of paint. His brutally honest love story Tender Napalm opened to widespread praise in 2011 and begins touring the UK in May.
When we speak over the phone, two weeks before Shivered’’s premiere at Southwark Playhouse (starring Olivia Poulet from The Thick of It), Ridley insists that reviews aren’t important to him. “I don’t live my life for comment. That’s not my agenda. I’m far more interested in what the next project is going to be. People can say what they like.” But he isn’t blind to the irony of his current popularity in critical circles.
Ridley is now recognised as a pioneer of ‘In Yer Face’ theatre, with its no-holds-barred look at the dark things lurking in the human psyche. But when Pitchfork – the play that started it all – opened at the Bush Theatre in 1991 it caused a stir. While popular with younger audiences, many reviewers bred on Eighties agitprop didn’t know what to make of its tale of traumatised, chocolate-loving siblings terrorised in their dead parents’ East End home by a cockroach-regurgitating showman and his gimp sidekick.
The majority didn’t have Ridley’s frame of reference as an artist (he trained at Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design) and few shared his non-theatrical influences: authors like Philip K Dick, filmmakers like David Cronenberg and other Body Horror directors, as well as visual artists like Joseph Cornell. “I was doing monologues and dream sequences in art galleries. I was bringing along a completely different chest of drawers of things, which people couldn’t relate to”, he recalls.
What amuses Ridley looking back at Pitchfork’s initial reviews is that “a lot say that the play is set in a post-apocalyptic world where two people are trying to survive a nuclear holocaust. That’s clearly not the case!” he says, laughing. “So many people didn’t pick up on the fact that the first third of the play is phantasmagoric. Presley and Haley [the siblings] are weaving stories. There’s a truth to these, but it’s metaphorical. They’re like parables.”
So what has changed since? Not only has surrealism and a multidisciplinary approach become more common in theatre, but a post-riot and recession-struck London has caught up withPitchfork’s vision of an urban landscape shadowed by deprivation and violence. “Being able place it in a body of work has also helped,” Ridley affirms. “The context has become the other plays I’ve done. People can see the journey of my writing a bit more.”
Shivered (which plays on the word’s older meaning, to split asunder) is the latest stop en route. While Ridley asserts that “every new project has always felt like starting from scratch”, this story of a family struggling with loss and dashed hopes in a fictitious Essex new town – loosely inspired by the experiences of some of his friends – is a particular departure from what has gone before.
Unlike his previous plays, which unfold with claustrophobic intensity in real time on a single set, Shivered covers the 12 years since the Millennium, contains multiple scenes, an interval (his first since 1994) and ventures out of the East End. “I’m not sure I could go to South London, but I can manage Essex,” chuckles Ridley, a lifelong native of Bethnal Green.
As with all of Ridley’s work, narrative voice was “the key thing” in determining the play’s structure. “I was halfway through when I realised that telling the story chronologically, as I’d been doing, was the least interesting way. It wasn’t making as much sense dramatically and emotionally as I thought it could. So I started breaking things up.”
This has resulted in 17 scenes that Ridley describes as “almost standalone, like a series of short plays. Hopefully I’ve created an emotional chronology that makes sense. I’ve focused on particular moments in the story of this family – and that of another, which runs alongside – and treated them like pieces of a broken mirror. These might not be the moments you expect, but as you piece them together they form a bigger picture.”
Ridley’s language is full of similes and metaphors (he also pokes fun at his alliterative tendencies); and his plays borrow from their allusive nature, twisting and turning with the suggestiveness of fairytales. The figures woven through his speech reflect his dislike of over-explanation, either in his work or when discussing it.
“Theatre should make you feel truth like you would in a dream. The meaning is in the feeling and if you try to tie it down it can cease to have any meaning at all.
“That’s why I find interviews so difficult”, Ridley says in what I suspect is only half-mock exasperation. “Suddenly you get asked something that needs a precise answer and you realise that you’ve never thought about it precisely in your life. It’s like being asked to explain why you love someone.”
When I ask if Shivered is intended as a post-millennial comment on where we are as a society, his reluctance to be specific comes through. “Many people have referred to it as a ‘state of the nation’ play and I can see why they’d do that,” he reflects. “But it’s more of a dream state of the nation play. It’s about taking the feelings and emotions of where we are and weaving them into something else. It’s not about events as such.
He continues: “The other reason it’s hard for me to answer the question is because I have no idea! I had a dream about a family and called it Shivered. Now, I’m putting it out there, in the real world. But it’s not my role to analyse it. That’s for other people to do.”
This could sound defensive or disingenuous. But coming from Ridley, so frank and open at all other times, it doesn’t. And his dislike of second-guessing his work isn’t him burying his head in the sand. He strongly believes that writers must “avoid wrapping things up in a message” because “nothing dates quicker.” It’s not an artist’s job to have answers. It’s an artist’s job to pose questions.
“Look at all those films and plays that seemed so avant-garde in the Sixties. My God how they’ve dated, because they were playing to the moral agenda of the time,” he points out. “You’ve got to be careful not to get caught up in the prevailing wind of the day, because that wind can lead you into oblivion.”
Instead, Ridley argues, “art should be about scrubbing away the carbuncles and clutter that build up over our eyes and stop us from seeing things clearly.” This means “taking something that people might think of as ordinary and making them look it differently; to find those moments that will make an audience go, ‘Oh! I’ve always felt that but never had it put into words before.’”
For Ridley, digging beneath the skin of society and chucking away the junk of pre-conceived ideas is the only way to produce something artistically honest and truthful, with a long shelf life. This is why Pitchfork’s original reviews frustrated him and some people’s reaction to his work annoys him still – particularly those who dismiss it as fantasy or make-believe.
“All I’ve ever tried to do is to be brutally honest,” he says; “to write from my experience of the world, without censoring myself. That can be a barrier, because we’re brought up watching things that are anodyne, generic or clichéd and end up thinking that’s the way life is.”
Ridley has even less time for suggestions that his work is sensationalist. “Someone recently asked me if I thought thatPitchfork was less shocking now than when it was first on. I replied: ‘what makes you think I was setting out to shock in the first place?’
“There might be elements that are surprising or disturbing, but that was my experience at the time. I wrote it coming out of a recession, when people were going around pubs doing the equivalent of the 1920s American peepshows. They’d eat worms or regurgitate chips through their nose. I wasn’t making that up – I saw it!”
Are so many of his plays set in the East End for the same reason? “I hadn’t realised I was doing that until someone pointed it out to me,” he reveals. “It’s not a dogmatic thing. I just tend to put stories in environments I know well. But it’s like Tennessee Williams’s Deep South; it’s very much the East London of my mind.”
Ridley’s imagination is fired up by the area’s “endlessly changing landscape,” which has “every colour and atmosphere for any story you want to tell, from gleaming high-rises to Dickensian slums.” It also has a lot to do with language. “Because my writing isn’t naturalistic I need to know the vernacular I’m basing it on, to make poetry out of it.”
Grubbily poetic, darkly surreal, sometimes horrifying but never conjured out of thin air. This is the world Ridley writes: a place of forbidden things that creep off the stage and into the audience. “It’s about taking something personal to you – a fear or a love, something primal – and shrinking it down to its essence. And the moment you get to the single atom of that experience, it should explode into something universal for everyone.”
This total immersion is why, in spite of his claim not to care about reviews, it angers him when people miss his point. The response to his fourth play, Mercury Fur (2005), still riles him. Several critics reacted with disgust to its presentation of a dystopian future in which a ten-year-old is chosen to be tortured to death as part of a city professional’s fantasy role-play. One broadsheet reviewer wrote that it “positively revels in imaginative nastiness.”
In part, Ridley ascribes this to cultural snobbery (“If I’d reinvented Mercury Fur as a lost Greek tragedy and set it in Thebes, no one would have batted an eyelid”). But he also believes that it is indicative of a conservatism that sees theatre, even now, lag behind other art forms.
“Young audiences, families, will go to the Tate Modern and happily walk through sliced up sheep, pickled sharks and unmade beds with tampons on them”, he observes. “But do something like that in a stage play and people are outraged and you’re a ‘shockmaster’.”
Ridley detects a “strange kind of Victorian morality” behind this. “It’s like the nineteenth-century painting of a surprised woman who’s realised that she’s betrayed her husband and has to go back to her family.” He believes that critics want “a context that will help liberate them into how they think they should be feeling. I don’t do that, I guess, so that’s been a bit of a problem.”
Ridley is “always irritated” when people equate subject matter with the end result of a play. “Because Mercury Fur was ostensibly about a very dark subject, the assumption became that seeing it would be a depressing, downbeat or nihilistic experience. But when it’s done correctly, it’s not. It should take you on this ghost-train ride of emotions that leaves you feeling more passionate about life, wanting to live more.”
The cathartic thrill of the ghost train dominates as a trope in interviews with Ridley, connecting his approach to his plays with his films, art and children’s books. It isn’t about sugar-coated, sunlit optimism; it is about waving the dark things of life in our face in such a way that we better understand them. The ride is also a fairytale forest, Ridley’s characters the Big Bad Wolves to our Little Red Riding Hoods.
“Each of us creates the reality we need in order to survive. And for me that’s tremendously empowering”, he explains. “Religion isn’t doing it, so we have to tell our own stories. And I’ve felt this particularly when I’ve been writing for children. It’s about giving them a ritual, a story, to make sense of the chaos.”
Shivered is Southwark Playhouse from 17 March – 14 April; Tender Napalm will tour the UK from May, returning to Southwark Playhouse for a limited run in June; and Mercury Fur will be revived at the Old Red Lion Theatre from 27 March – 14 April.
First published by Exeunt