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Philip Ridley

Theatre Teaches You To Be Human: An Interview with Philip Ridley

24 May 2016 Tom Faber

Playwright, novelist, poet, photographer, visual artist, songwriter…phew. Acclaimed polymath Philip Ridley burst onto the theatrical scene in the early 90’s with a provocative series of plays and has been challenging audiences across a range of forms ever since. With a new play beginning soon, we speak to him about film, a changing London and how theatre teaches you to feel.

Philip Ridley won’t talk to me about his new play. It’s a secret, he says. I’d called to ask about Karagula, a piece for adults coming soon to a secret central location. The project was born from the playwright’s relationship with Max Barton, who directed an acclaimed revival of Ridley’s ‘Piranha Heights’ in 2014. There’s little other information on Karagula, but perhaps Ridley’s past work holds clues. Across his thirty-year artistic career he is best known for his plays, which often shock audiences with their dystopic settings and themes, drifting in a limbo somewhere between fantasy and reality. He’s also an award-winning children’s writer on both stage and page, alongside work as a visual artist and songwriter. An intimidating polymath? You’d never think so from talking to him. Ridley is a warm, generous speaker: laughing easily, listening attentively and speaking eloquently.

If he won’t tell me about the play, maybe he’ll explain why it’s a secret? “There are certain twists and turns that I want to keep for the enjoyment of people coming to see it,” he responds guardedly. It turns out to be about rather more than avoiding spoilers. Ridley fondly remembers his days studying painting at Central St Martins, when he would do performance art in garages, nightclubs and derelict factories. “The trouble with big theatres these days is they look like airports,” he confides, “they don’t excite me much. There’s something we have to do to infuse the whole night with the theatrical experience.” Karagula’s audience will only be told the play’s location after buying tickets, and will arrive with no preconceptions or downloaded synopses that might prevent them taking the play on its own pure terms.

Karagula plays into the immersive guerrilla performances which are painfully trendy in London at the moment. Yet finding appropriate spaces isn’t as easy as it used to be. “Everything’s being turned into a hotel. You can’t leave your front door open without coming back at night and its been turned into a three-bedroom hotel,” he deadpans. In the 80’s, Ridley would perform monologues in empty buildings in East London, but times have changed. “It is becoming more difficult, but they’re there - they just need some finding.”

He’s an authoritative voice on East London, having lived in the same flat where he was born in Bethnal Green for almost fifty years before a recent move to Ilford. “When I was a child it was the last period of it being ‘the old East End’. It still felt like a sequence of small villages and everyone knew people.” But the change has been enormous, and his last few years there felt like living inside a permanent building site. Given that many of Ridley’s early plays take place in East London, I ask if it still feels like home to him. “Where you live and the memories you have about places are so much a place in your mind,” he replies. “I have an East London in my mind, and that’s really the East London I’ve written about – it bears as much connection to reality as Tennessee Williams’ Deep South bore to reality. It’s a reimagining, it all exists in a dream world.”

Given that these dream worlds can take a wide variety of forms across the arts, I was curious whether he knew from an idea’s inception whether it would be a play, a book or a film. “The way I need to tell the story is always at the heart of what the story is,” he answered emphatically. “If I’m seeing it as a sequence of images or colours then it’s quite clearly a film. The first film I did, ‘The Reflecting Skin’, I was just seeing wheat fields, blue skies and a child - there’s no way it could be a stage play, it’d never work on stage. There’s no way I could adapt The Reflecting Skin because what it’s about is the cinematic experience.”

He takes the same approach to theatre, exploiting the form’s possibilities to the fullest extent. “You can really say – ok, this is clearly a stage play, what is it that a stage play has that most other art forms don’t have? A live audience. How can I use the fact that we’ve got an audience? How can you implicate the audience directly in the action? Not just as a fait accompli, how can you implicate them in the journey of the play? A lot of young audiences are really excited by that.”

Young audiences aren’t the only ones – it’s clear that Ridley, too, is excited by these ideas. Perhaps this is why his film output numbers only four compared to the tens of plays he’s written. Theatre audiences are more emotionally sensitive and susceptible, the experience is more alive. “To see violence in film is nothing. We’re so desensitised and immune to it, we can watch the most appalling violence onscreen and it doesn’t effect us hugely. But to be in a room, even if the special effects are not as good, to be in the same room as an act of violence happening on stage, is still an incredible, visceral, morally complicit thing to be watching. No one goes to see a Tarantino film and passes out or runs out of the audience screaming.”

For Ridley watching film is a frozen experience – it’s already happened, no matter how the audience reacts, they won’t change what occurs onscreen. But with theatre, “what the audience feels does change every performance.” The communication between audience and actors is one of the reasons why Ridley doesn’t allow film versions of his plays to be made, they would lose so much in translation. “Just to be in the same room where two people are kissing on stage is a very different experience to watching it on film. This is vital. This is what makes us human, makes us communities, to sit in a congregation with other people in a theatre and to experience those things together. To feel part of the world around you. Sitting in an audience teaches you how to be human. It’s like you see something that’s shocking and you hear people gasp and then you gasp. The audience has taught each other how to be a human entity.”

Not only can theatre exploit the relationship between the audience and the story, but it can also change its meaning over time. This is particularly true of Ridley’s plays, which are often revived. They were once criticised for their obscurity, yet it’s this very obliqueness which allows people to reinterpret the pieces to mean whatever they want. Ridley gives the example of his first play, ‘The Pitchfork Disney’. “Every time it’s revived it means something different. There’s a production of it on in Canada at the moment which in the present climate is being seen as a play about terrorism – about the fear of the outside coming in and the fear of change. A few years ago it was about the fear of sex, intimacy, of being touched.” He comes up with a typically poetic image for these shifts of interpretation: “They’re like tuning forks, they vibrate with whatever’s going on in the atmosphere at the time.”

Whatever Karagula holds, it’s likely to tread new ground. Ridley isn’t one to rehash past successes. But as with any true artist, there are threads which bind all his work. The recurring theme of his plays is an investigation of the theatrical experience, “taking an audience into the jungle of their imaginations for a few hours and giving them a little experience that will hopefully make them see the world a little differently when they leave. I’m just trying to create little moments of dream time that make the audience feel things.” This intention, both modest and grand, is perhaps the key to the penetrating power of Ridley’s work. “I feel very proud when people come up to me after a show and say, ‘the world feels a little different after I’ve seen that,’ and you think, ‘actually, that was the point.’ Just to buckle the world a little bit.”

Karagula is on at a secret location from 10 June – 9 July at 7.15pm. Normal tickets cost £28.50 and can booked on the Soho Theatre’s website.

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