Philip Ridley’s creative origin story has been so frequently recounted it barely needs repeating: it’s a constantly expanding and distinct cross-platform body of work defined by a lyrical barbaric beauty and a fantastic palette of recurring imagery. But the most interesting piece of work will always be whatever Ridley is working on at present. “I don’t want to repeat myself, so I’m always trying to push things,” he tells me as we meet at the Soho Theatre on the hottest day of the year. His new play is in rehearsals before its premiere at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. “It can be dangerous because every time you start something new you’re going into unchartered waters.”
The last time A Younger Theatre caught up with the Ridley, he was in the midst of rehearsing his ninth play for adults, Shivered, at the Southwark Playhouse, whilst a major revival of his first play, The Pitchfork Disney, was exciting audiences at the Arcola. A production of his most polemical play, Mercury Fur, was negotiating a West End transfer. All whilst his first collection of plays had been made available for the first time in ten years.
It was a year that “passed in a blur” and was topped off with Feathers in the Snow. From a family show featuring 86 voices and incorporating Southwark Theatre’s Young Company, his new work, Dark Vanilla Jungle, is a creative quantum leap with just one performer. Dark Vanilla Jungle will mark Ridley’s professional Edinburgh Festival Fringe debut. A one-woman play, it touches on themes of gang culture, the objectification of women and the impact of trauma on young people. The play, which has been receiving excellent responses from previews in London and Manchester, first emerged from a 14 character play Ridley had been developing. “One by one the characters dropped off until there was one voice, this girl, Andrea, which just stuck in my head.”
Discovering the central voice of Dark Vanilla Jungle came from expeditions on London buses, listening in on conversations as he travelled from one end of the route to the other. “You know somebody more than you know your mum by the time you get off. I was just listening to girls talk about the boys they were seeing and I thought lots of these relationships sound really abusive. They sound really deeply misogynistic. And yet the girls so wanted to please. They wanted approval even while they were being treated badly.” It was these young women that were the basis of the “everygirl”, Andrea, in Dark Vanilla Jungle.
Ridley had been initially reluctant to return to the form he had explored when performing his own durational pieces as a student at art school. The writing process this time round as been different, “like flexing another finger in the brain” and something he has enjoyed. “It’s been such a thrill to work on a monologue again. Every beat needs to keep it alive for the audience. It was like working out a solo violin piece. There’s no orchestral back up. I fell back in love with monologues in a way I wasn’t expecting.”
It was his student monologues that brought Ridley to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe each summer between the ages of 17 and 25. “It was just me going up in a van and sleeping on a friend’s floor and waking up with my head in the cat litter.” This time, Ridley isn’t making the journey to the Fringe alone. He’s paired up again with producers Supporting Wall and director David Mercatali whose previous partnerships have included Tender Napalm and Moonfleece. Ridley finds the continuity of working with previous collaborators advantageous. “I have a director in David at the moment who really just gets where I’m coming from and we work very well together. He knows the play inside out. We share a similar language.”
Though he’s no longer operating as a one-man-band as he did in his student days (“I directed it, I was in it, I did the flyers, I did the box office and then I would rush in and do the show. I did the whole caboodle”) you may still see Ridley dishing out flyers on the Royal Mile this August. “I am very hands on. I love the work and I love the community of theatre. I love the energy of it and I love the journey of it.” It’s a professional journey that many young companies will embark on this summer at the Fringe. The boldness and fearlessness of new directors excites Ridley and he encourages them to make the most of the freedom that comes with starting out. “Meteors only make sparks when they are entering the atmosphere. It’s the moment of coming in to the orbit of the theatre community that you cause sparks. Its a very special time.”
Emerging companies taking work to the Fringe for the first time may be counting on the benevolence of the swarm of critical publications that emerge each year to validate their work. With his own experiences of facing furiously sensationalist critical response, Ridley offers advice to young companies fearing the sharp pen of the critic: “The truth is quite simple – none of it means a damn. The only way you move forward in art is to basically not to give a fuck about anything except the truth about what you want to explore. So as long as you’re pleased with it, that is absolutely fine. Never set out to second guess what you need to do to please anyone because you will invariably get it wrong. No artist wants to go to their grave and have on the tombstone, ‘They pleased the critics’.”
He continues: “An audience will go with you anywhere so long as they think you’re honest. Even if they haven’t liked your work, they will thank you for the honesty of what you’ve given them. There is a kind of theatrical contract between the stage and the audience which for me is about honesty, bravery and love. The artist is saying ‘if we join hands on this journey, I will take you somewhere that I think you will appreciate and learn from. Even though it might be a shocking ride along the way, I promise you there will be starlight at the end’.”
Philip Ridley’s Dark Vanilla Jungle will be at the Pleasance Dome from 31 July – 26 August part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. For more information and tickets, visit the Supporting Wall’s website.
TREMers theatre revives Ridley’s The Fastest Clock in the Universe at the Old Red Lion, London from 5 – 30 November.