Since Philip Ridley’s first play, The Pitchfork Disney, premiered at The Bush Theatre in 1991, the east London-born writer and artist has been shocking audiences and critics alike with his own particular brand of magical realist drama. Here, on the eve of the premiere of his latest play, Tender Napalm, Ridley tells us about being a maverick playwright...
I was labelled very early on with the first stage play, The Pitchfork Disney, as this kind of shock-fest master.
I guess first impressions are very tricky to live down. But every time I’ve finished a play and people have been shocked by it, it always takes me by surprise, because I’ve never deliberately set out to shock. It’s always happened as a logical consequence of the characters and their motivations on stage.
Writing for me is a lot like dreaming in many ways – you just let the process take you where it’s going to take you. I just start with a blank piece of paper and sometimes I hear the first line of dialogue or think of an aspect of a character that quite intrigues me; they then start to speak to me and become alive.
People are saying that my new play, Tender Napalm [pictured below], is a change of direction, but in truth, changes of direction happen in my work all the time. What goes on in the play – and again I didn’t set out to do this, it just developed in the process – [is] you’ve got a man and woman who are trying to make sense of their relationship in a violent world, and the place where those two things meet, the relationship and the world, is the theatrical landscape of the play.
But it was only as the play progressed that I thought, “I’ve got to be very brave about this now and let it soar and not try and tie it down to anything. I’ve got to place these two people in the universe of their relationship and let that universe explode with all the sex and emotion it’s screaming out for”.
Whatever you’re doing, you have to make the leap. You have to just jump into the unknown with something. You can’t prejudge what you’re doing and let yourself off the hook by saying, “That’s been done before, I can’t do that” or “I’ve never done that before, I can’t do that”. What I’ve found in the writing, as in life, is that the act of leaping will let you find what you need to carry on a particular journey. The leap creates the magic to fly.
What I’ve done with Tender Napalm – and this is a first for me – is taken away the external shackles of a set. So, to an extent, it’s very unreal. But that’s fine. Realism has never interested me very much. I’m after truth, not reality. And if a character is be true than that’s usually because they have a large part of my DNA in their theatrical bloodstream.
My plays, I’m thrilled and honoured to say, have been done all over the world. It excites me that a play can go off and achieve a life of its own. I’ve become much more respectful of that and much more excited by that as time has gone on. At one time I hated that lack of control: now I welcome it.
Theatre for me is all about storytelling. It’s about taking people on a journey and hopefully making them feel a bit different about the world at the end of that journey. But I think that sometimes you can underestimate both yourself and the audience if you persistently think about what “other people” want.
Because an audience doesn’t know what it wants really. It’s your job as an artist to give them something a little bit new. They’ve got to come to me, enter my world and work out what I’m trying to give them. I’m a particular tree and I grow a particular fruit.
Philip Ridley was talking to Jo Caird.
Tender Napalm is at the Southwark Playhouse from 19 April to 14 May. We're offering an exclusive Q&A with Philip Ridley for ticket-holders on 29 April.