INTERVIEW: Philip Ridley, Telling Stories

Phil Matthews meets celebrated playwright Philip Ridley. His new play Feathers in the Snow premieres at Southwark Playhouse this month.

Philip Ridley

Walking into the Southwalk Playhouse during the day is an odd experience. Gone are the atmospheric lights and energy that form part of the theatre’s famous character. This feels more like being in a nightclub post-event. The cleaners have mopped up the detritus of the previous hedonistic party, and we’re left with the bare bones of the building – warts and all. Sitting in the theatre bar though, it feels rather poignant, considering the venue is in its final days of life here, a move to make the London Bridge Station redevelopment possible. Boy, if these walls could talk.

I’m meeting Philip Ridley, the celebrated playwright of The Pitchfork Disney, Mercury Fur and Shivered. The latter premiered at the theatre earlier this year in a hugely successful production, and now he’s back, having been selected to present Southwark’s final offering at the venue, before it moves to temporary premises in Elephant and Castle.

Feathers in the Snow, a family show, is a curious choice for Ridley (pictured right) otherwise renowned for his hard-hitting and somewhat more controversial projects. Though he has written children’s books. Quite a few of them actually. Quite a few of them winning awards too. In fact, reading Ridley’s eclectic CV, you get a sense that this is someone that creatively does what he wants, when he wants. How is it possible for a career to inhabit being a performance artist, a painter, novelist, playwright, screen-writer, film-maker, director and photographer? And enjoy victory with all of them?

“For me, I’m just doing one thing,” says Ridley. “But that’s the paradox that I’ve always had in talking about it. All I’m doing is telling stories.”

I’m struck with how polite and unassuming Ridley is. Aren’t artists of his standing supposed to be serious, introvert and slightly difficult? On the contrary, Ridley is approachable and engaging, with a thirst for his work.

“Sometimes a story occurs to me and if I see it in purely visual terms, then that’s probably a film,” he continues. “If I hear a story being told with characters talking to each other, then that’s probably a stage play. If I see a story that’s a sequence of images, then that might be a sequence of photographs or paintings. So the story dictates the medium you need to tell it. It never really occurred to me until I was in a way castigated for it by lots of people, that I was doing different things, for me it’s just one thing – it’s storytelling.”

It is a wonderful way to view one’s creativity, and one that is embraced in America for instance. In contrast, it is almost as though Britain has held a certain snobbery towards artists, especially actors, who so much as flirt with another discipline. I recall a former actor friend of mine, told under no uncertain terms by a leading Artistic Director, that if he was to direct a play he was to give up acting at once or risk never being taken seriously in either. He swallowed the advice and is now an award-winning director, an aspiration that may not have materialised had he ignored the advice of his mentor. Deep down I know my friend’s stomach aches to be back on the stage, but dares not. I wonder what Ridley makes of an industry that can be so blinkered.

He takes a sip of his drink and ponders for a moment about why the problem is so “endemic” in the UK and “not so bad” in the rest of Europe even.

“Ambition is frowned upon in this country, the English don’t like ambitious people,” he says. “They never did. All of this is changing slightly. When I did my first film, that started to come together at the end of my 20’s. At that time, that was outrageously young to be doing a film in this country. You were supposed to have worked twenty years in the BBC and ‘earned your wings’. Twenty years of disillusion behind you, before you finally started to do something else.”

Southwark Playhouse

Ridley studied painting at St. Martin’s School of Art in the eighties. At that time, that literally meant you picked up a paint brush, stuck in oil paint and put it on the canvass. If you did anything else it was “a bit suspect,” he explains.

“A lot of people that I speak to that do one thing, all do other things, it’s just that they don’t talk about it,” he adds. He mentions playwright Howard Barker who recently had a play on at the Print Room and was exhibiting paintings at the same time. The American film director David Lynch is also a painter and musician. British film director Peter Greenaway also paints.

Ridley embraced his own ambition early on, making career decisions that often took him in new creative directions without much planning and “much to the irritation of the people that were trying to guide my career,” he smiles. “I’ve always gone, not deliberately, but somehow always gone against what was the prevailing thought of what I should be doing next.”

It is not surprising then, that Ridley would move into film. He has written and directed two features – The Reflecting Skin, scooping 11 international awards, and The Passion of the Darkly Noon, which earned him Best Director at the Porto Film Festival. But it was back in the eighties, whilst studying, that Ridley got his foot in the door at a pop video production company to earn “a bit of extra pocket money” and was later given the opportunity of a lifetime – writing the screenplay for The Krays, starring Gary and Martin Kemp.

Ridley joined the company doing odd jobs, then storyboarding, but it wasn’t long before he was being used as an ideas “bouncing ball” – a kind of ‘consultant’ to directors working on various projects. This was the heyday of pop videos with producers being handed serious money to make them. This particular company worked with Spandau Ballet and Ridley soon got a whiff that the famous Kemp brothers were keen to get back into acting and were set on tackling the infamous brothers of the sixties – Ronnie and Reggie.

“Gary and Martin were from East London, and it just seemed like perfect casting, because you want two brothers that share that chemistry,” recalls Ridley. “I said, ‘why don’t you let me have a bash at The Krays?’ People were trying to get this film off the ground for twenty years and it had never happened, so I went away and just wrote it, the way I thought it should be done.”

Gary Kemp, Billie Whitelaw and Martin Kemp in The Krays.

Ridley was brought up in the East End, and from a young age was subjected to the many anecdotes that encapsulated the famous gangsters. “All my Aunts had danced with Reggie Kray at some point. I saw one of them when I was a child. I knew the legend, and it was the legend of them that really fascinated me.”

Tackling such a subject as your first screenplay is undeniably courageous, and it is this ambition that makes Ridley himself fascinating. Narratively, getting into the nitty gritty must have been a minefield and he admits their tale was “convoluted” in that they were in and out of prison the whole time. The key, he recalls, was to look at it from the “mythical aspect”.

Not afraid to go on instinct, Ridley made a bold choice early on. “The first thing that I did, which shocked everyone at the time, was that I said we’re not going to have Gary or Martin in it for about the first 40 minutes,” recounts Ridley. “We’re going to concentrate on the childhood of the boys. That was a big bone of contention for a while, because it was obviously Gary and Martin bringing the money in.

“Looking back, what I brought to it was quite clearly what I would still bring to it. It was all about childhood, strong female characters from East London, it was about crocodiles. I did the first draft of the screenplay and it was so not commercial. But Gary and Martin loved it.”

Distinguished actors such as Steven Berkoff, Victor Spinetti and Billie Whitelaw signed up. Showing significant support for Ridley’s script, Whitelaw stepped up to the challenging role of Violet Kray. “She was perfect, and she knew it. She hadn’t done a film for ages. She came back because she knew she could nail this. She was just so encouraging. She said, ‘you’ve written what you wanted to write for your first film and you haven’t changed a word and not many people could do that’.”

Mercury Fur, Trafalgar Studios (2012)

It is a philosophy that has steered Ridley’s career: To be resolute in your ideas, with a “just do it” attitude. It means that you certainly won’t find a play of his gathering dust in a drawer somewhere. This is an artist who gets things done, a participator not anticipator, seeing the project through to the end. “Once it’s written, I just want to get it on,” says Ridley.

It is also why he “never really” takes on theatre commissions. Pitching an idea simply goes against Ridley’s ethos. “I can’t work like that. I have to say ‘do you want the next play?’ Even if I sat down and said to you ‘I’m going to write this thing about blah, blah, blah,’ it would change after ten pages. It would become something else. Nothing I’ve ever started out writing is what I’ve ended up writing on any project,” he explains with conviction. “It’s always changing and it’s always organic.”

It is a courgeous way of working but Ridley admits he’s keen to take risks. And boy, he’s taken enough of those in his time. The backlash that came with his 2005 play Mercury Fur, starring Ben Whishaw, left Ridley “gobsmacked”. Following the premiere at the Menier Chocolate Factory, it became a huge cause célèbre with the critics. His own publishers, believing Ridley had maybe taken a risk too far, even refused to print the text. A play dealing with gangs, violence, drugs and the murder of a child with a meat hook will always prompt reaction, but Ridley did not anticipate friends disowning him. “It’s absolutely true. They said, ‘What exactly are you trying to say in this? Are you trying to promote the killing of children? Is that what you’re doing?’ I was just so gobsmacked.”

There’s not even a hint of trepidation now, of course. Ridley is far too smart for all of that nonsense. “It was a great production, with Ben Wishaw for fuck sake, you can’t go wrong! But for some reason, the press reaction was determined not to see what it was about. They were determined to see it as a shock-fest,” he recalls.

That didn’t stop the rest of the world wanting a slice of the action, as Mercury Fur went on to premiere in a host of other countries; including America, Australia, Germany, Japan, France, Italy, Malta, Turkey and the Czech Republic. The recent revival at the Trafalgar Studios in London saw the original negative press reaction flip the other way, an illogical premise that tickles Ridley. “It’s not that I’m not bothered about what critics say. In a way it’s irrelevant, because I’ve known them to change their mind from one show to the next. What they said five years ago, they’re not going to say now. I’ve done many plays that have been completely trashed when they open and then they’re in the ‘pick of the week’ within four weeks,” he says.

“It’s not that I go out of my way to ignore them or anything like that. But that’s not the story being told. The story about any work of art happens about three or four years after.”

The Pitchfork Disney, Arcola Theatre revival, 2011

Looking back then on Ridley’s first play in 1991, there was no way he could have anticipated the gear change that was happening in British playwriting. On reflection though, Ridley was very much part of the invasion of fantasy and dark surrealism into the theatre, perhaps even leading the way. “I knew nothing about theatre, I didn’t even know what Press Night was,” he confesses. “I’d just written this thing called The Pitchfork Disney, like a distillation of the things I’d been doing at art school. My agent said ‘I don’t know what you’ve written, but I’ve never read anything else like it’.”

“Nobody got it when it opened. People in the first previews sat there with their mouths open,” he laughs. “You don’t consciously set out to change things. You don’t know when you’re in the midst of it. Like you don’t know your best love affair in your life, until they leave you. You appreciate everything in hindsight.”

The process was to be an enormous lesson. “Dominic Dromgoole has written this book about British Playwrights [The Full Room, Methuen Drama], where he says I was there every night relishing and enjoying it,” says Ridley, almost wide-eyed. “It wasn’t the case, I was there most nights learning. I was watching what worked and what didn’t work, because I was already writing the next play. It was a huge learning curve, to see how all of this fit together.” Ridley followed that up with two more acclaimed adult plays, and then defied convention in the only way he knows how.  “Of course I went off and wrote some kids books,” Ridley smiles knowingly.

Feathers in the Snow rehearsals

In his latest production, Ridley confirms that it has been a joy to work with the company of six “very hard working actors” who take on 72 speaking parts in a play that spans over 500 years. “It’s great doing something completely different,” he says, after a personally difficult and traumatic year. Although a family play that features songs, Ridley believes that people who know his work will “pick up on all the little bits and pieces that are obviously me, so to speak. Hopefully it’s still saying something. It’s fun. It’s magical.”

Ridley is “honoured” that Feathers in the Snow will be the final production at the current venue, a fitting piece that carries a message of moving on. “It’s a nod to finding new pastures. That will be the last song, the last words that will be heard in theatre terms. It will be very emotional I think on the last night.”

As we close the interview, I’m in awe of how passionate Ridley is for his work, whatever discipline he presents it in. Not only does he follow his gut instincts, he commits to the work and more importantly, he takes risks. He’s also a bloody nice bloke.

There’s a sparkle in Ridley’s eye as he offers one last quip: “We should have our own chat show called ‘The Phil’s’‘Afternoon with The Phil’s’!

I would not put it past Ridley to make anything possible. I’m sold.

Feathers in the Snow runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 5th January 2013. More details.

Share via
Send this to a friend