Philip Ridley tells Aleks Sierz about his new play Shivered and why the revival of his 1991 work The Pitchfork Disney has even more relevance to today’s YouTube and reality TV-obsessed society
“There’s just no point in theatre unless it’s extraordinary,” says Philip Ridley, one of contemporary theatre’s greatest innovators. “Why botherRidley’s clearly on a roll and this year his diary is filling up fast.
First, there’s a revival of his 1991 debut, The Pitchfork Disney, with a cast led by Chris New and the E4 Misfits star Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, then there’s a brand new play, Shivered, which opens in March. This is followed by a London fringe revival of his 2005 shock-fest Mercury Fur and a national tour of Tender Napalm, his 2011 Southwark Playhouse hit, in May and June.
How does it feel to see The Pitchfork Disney revived on its 21st birthday? “Ever since the first production, there’s been talk of reviving it,” he says with a disarming smile as he adjusts his trademark hat. But this production only came about because its director, Edward Dick, had already revived his 1992 play The Fastest Clock in the Universe at the Hampstead in 2009, successfully reinventing the work for a contemporary audience.
“Then,” says Ridley, “he said he wanted to restage some of the other earlier work because although the plays seemed outrageous on their first appearance, they now come across as much less bizarre.”
You can see what he means. For example, Ridley remembers how The Fastest Clock in the Universe was greeted with incomprehension about the vanity of his central character, Cougar. “People said that no one would be so obsessed with having a six-pack – now you can’t throw a brick without hitting a man who’s obsessed with his stomach muscles.”
Time has finally caught up with these plays. In The Pitchfork Disney, there’s a character, Cosmo, who eats live insects on a pub stage for a living, and an image of a snake being fried alive, which, he says, “is pure I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!. People are now watching this kind of thing every night on television.”
He goes on to argue that “the YouTube culture fuels an obsession with atrocity”. At one point in the play, Cosmo – played by Stewart-Jarrett – says: “Darwin got it all wrong. Fitness has got fuck all to do with it. It’s survival of the sickest.” By means of the internet and computer games, the world of the play has become our normality.
Born in London’s East End in 1964, Ridley still lives in the area, and he’s proud of the fact that he came to theatre by an unusual route. Instead of going to drama school, he went to St Martin’s School of Art. Before his theatre debut, he’d already had a decade-long career as an artist, novelist and film-maker (his 1990 film The Krays was highly acclaimed). He remains an exciting, creative polymath.
But his work has been misunderstood. “People have tended to latch on to the ‘atrocity exhibition’ aspect of the work,” he says. “Which is crazy. I mean I showed my first drawings at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1981, and for ten years I was mainly known as a visual artist. And people thought my work was whimsical, beguiling and magical. I was Puck incarnate.
“Suddenly, I do The Pitchfork Disney and a whole new vocabulary comes along: shocking, outrageous and provocative. But I wasn’t doing anything I hadn’t done before in the art world for all those years.”
His theatre output in the 1990s was punctuated by walk-outs and controversy whipped up by the critics. But the greatest outrage was caused by his 2005 play, Mercury Fur, with its explicit language and images of violence against children.
“Yes, that got the most shocked responses,” says Ridley. “But I must stress that my work is not a nihilistic experience, but a moving experience, and even life-enhancing in some ways. And that should be the only criteria by which to judge an art work. Unfortunately, we are still completely wrapped up, particularly in theatre in this country, in this moralistic agenda, this Victorian attitude to art.”
He adds: “The only question you should ask of a play is does it lead an audience to go back to their lives with more passion, more intensity and more love? If they do that, then the piece has succeeded.”
Shivered, his new play, came about because “I wanted to tell the story of a family- who live in a fictitious new town in Essex – over the first decade of the new millennium,” he says. “Then something happened that scared and excited me in equal measure. I found that when I started to break up the narrative and present it in little fragments, I could tell another story at the same time by rearranging these fragments.” The story involves another family as well, and “it is the first time that I’ve done a saga,” he adds.
What’s it like to be working on both his first play and his latest at the same time? “It’s an interesting coincidence,” he laughs. “It’s bit like trying to do synchronised swimming in a tsunami. You’re trying to get these decisions made while everything is coming at you at full blast.”
Ridley’s work is original, visionary and thrilling, but some of it involves explicit sex and violence, so it’s not for everybody. Still, he’s unrepentant. “I’m not producing hamburgers. I am not creating the least offensive taste. I am trying to be true to myself, with as much inventiveness as I can. People are always advising me, if only there was an Abba song at the end of your play, you could be in the West End. But that’s not the work I’m doing. I always say to the actors, what inspires and excites us will inspire and excite the audience. Just do what you believe in and do it with every atom of your being.”