When I ask polymath playwright Philip Ridley whether, after a career of 25 years in the theatre, he feels he is at the height of his powers, he laughs, then says: “I hope not. If this is as good as it can get, I might as well slit my wrists. No, I’ve got more passion and curiosity and desire to do things now than I had a quarter of a century ago. I always feel like I’m just starting out.”
Despite this, it is clear that his career has been both long and varied. He is an award-winning film-maker, who wrote the script for the 1990 classic The Krays, as well as both writing and directing two other cult films: The Reflecting Skin (1990) and The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995). He is also a prolific children’s novelist, songwriter, artist and photographer. Oh, and he’s written a shelf-load of often-revived plays. Currently, his 1991 debut drama, The Pitchfork Disney, is being republished by Methuen as a Modern Classic.
On the eve of a five-week run at the Soho Theatre for Ridley’s new play, Radiant Vermin, we meet in a chilly rehearsal space in north London. Stylishly dressed, and sipping from a bottle of water, he tells me that although his previous plays – such as The Fastest Clock in the Universe (1992) and Mercury Fur (2005) – were originally seen as controversial because of their powerful depictions of sex and violence, his latest is billed as a comedy.
“I have been trying not to write ‘the next Philip Ridley play’,” he says. “I don’t want to keep repeating myself. I have been trying to push boundaries. Didn’t Picasso say that every artist has got to assassinate themselves regularly? And I really think that is true. So I try to reinvent what I’m doing. All my plays had humour, but this one is funny and that’s something that I discovered in the writing – suddenly there were gags.”
Although Radiant Vermin is a comedy, it is one with distinctly sharp edges. Starring Gemma Whelan (Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones) and Sean Michael Verney (from BBC3’s Pramface), as the couple who move home for the sake of their new baby, the play is an imaginative take on the housing crisis, which is also the subject of other current plays by Mike Bartlett (Game) and Matt Hartley (Deposit).
The play was prompted by Ridley’s experiences of the housing market. “Last year,” he says, “I moved house for the very first time, from Bethnal Green to Ilford. And suddenly I find myself writing a play about a couple who want to move.” He’d been told that moving is traumatic – and that was indeed his experience. “So a lot of those feelings of panic and frustration went into it.”
But Ridley didn’t just dash off his play. “With me, the process starts with writing down some notes. You know, little jottings and doodles. Then, like some kind of evolution, a creature forms, and a homunculus starts to appear. So I was just making notes about the nightmare of moving house when I discovered my characters, Ollie and Jill, one day as I was walking around one of these Homebase stores hunting for all the things I suddenly discovered that I needed. I kept seeing young couples wanting more and more stuff, and the play developed as a meditation on consumerism. It asks the question: when do you stop wanting?”
With its themes of the housing crisis, homelessness and its resonance with the history of genocide (a typical Ridleyesque mixture), it seems to be his most explicitly political play. “Yes, without a shadow of a doubt,” he agrees. Ethics are at the core of Radiant Vermin. “Because we concentrate so much on a personal good, we can sometimes blind ourselves to the wider harm we are doing. We do things because we are motivated by love, especially the love of a new baby, but actually we’re doing harm. But hopefully, I’m doing this in a fun way. This is, after all, a comedy.”
Ridley is an unusual playwright in that he trained as an artist at St Martin’s School of Art, not at a drama college. When his debut, The Pitchfork Disney, was staged in 1991 he’d already written several children’s books and films. “The two things that I have always done are tell stories through words and tell stories through images. So my mum says that she can see no difference between what I am now and what I was when I was eight or nine. I would just grab a pile of paper and draw and write stories and paint. That was all I was ever interested in doing.”
Ridley suffered from asthma as a child, and so he spent a lot of time at home, in bed, creating the fantasy worlds which later developed into his creative work. Inspired by the paintings of the English artist Cecil Collins, which he’d seen on a solo expedition to the Tate art gallery, he attended St Martin’s, where, among his other work, he performed performance art pieces, which were his first experience of theatre.
After The Pitchfork Disney, he staged The Fastest Clock in the Universe and Ghost from a Perfect Place, an informal trilogy of controversial – some critics said shocking – East End gothic work. After these three, he didn’t write another adult play for six years. Instead, he wrote for young people at the National Theatre – plays such as Sparkleshark and Moonfleece – because he needed, he says, to “take a step back and a bit of distance”.
Ridley points out: “Everyone always wants the last play. ‘Oh, could you do another play just like…’ And I’ve never done that.” His new millennium plays, from Vincent River (2000) to Dark Vanilla Jungle (2013), have all in various ways been experiments in theatre form. At the same time, recent revivals of his work, such as that of Piranha Heights at the Old Red Lion Theatre last year, have multiplied.
“Yes, that’s really rewarding,” says Ridley. “I feel very blessed because of this interest in my work. After Mercury Fur, the work reinvented itself. It was as if people saw it for the first time. A whole new generation of younger directors came along – and they all just got it. In the past, I had to go into rehearsals and explain what I was doing. Then it was as if somebody flicked a switch and suddenly that changed. In the past 10 years, I’ve seen some of the best productions of my work. Just breathtaking.”
Talking about his recent collaborators, such as directors David Mercatali, Max Barton, Ned Bennett, Edward Dick and Tom O’Brien, Ridley says that because theatre is a collective art form, “You’re only as good as the people you’re with. I’ve been working with directors who have very different ideas about how to put a production together – and I’ve let them teach me new ideas about my work practice.”
Ridley also loves being with performers. “I’ve been very lucky because I’ve worked with some of the best actors around. Actors were the first people that responded to my work – before literary managers, before directors, before critics. I showed my plays to actors and they said, ‘Look we want to be in it.’” His work has provided early outings for actors of the calibre of Jude Law, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ben Whishaw.
I ask Ridley if it’s ever bothered him that his work has never been put on at the Royal Court, London’s premier new writing theatre. “The primary concern on my part is to work with people I love and respect,” he says. “I’m less concerned in which building the performance happens. I often tell young writers to free themselves from the concept that your career can be made by where your play is put on. I am living proof of the idea that you do the work you believe in without the patronage of one of the big buildings. Just do the plays you believe in.”
Radiant Vermin is at the Soho Theatre, London , March 10-April 12