Philip Ridley’s first play The Pitchfork Disney thrilled and disgusted critics in equal measure when it exploded onto the stage of The Bush Theatre in 1991. Many considered it a fitting pre-cursor to the onslaught of dark and brutal plays that became known as In-Yer-Face theatre in the mid ’90s. Now, 21 years on, the Arcola Theatre has revived The Pitchfork Disney, and its writer believes it may be more relevant now than it was then.
“It’s almost like time has caught up with the play in a way, because there was a lot of what was happening in The Pitchfork Disney that the initial audiences thought was fantasy and extreme. This idea of people locking themselves away and creating their own world inside their house seemed very bizarre to people at the time. The fact that they lived a predominantly fantasy life, that they created their own world around them. In the world of computer games and people living on the Internet and having avatar names and other life scenarios, most young people have got that now anyway.”
The Pitchfork Disney tells the story of adult siblings Haley and Presley, who have spent years of their lives in isolation, inhabiting their family home after the death of their parents; locked in an eternal state of childhood reminiscence. They tell each other apocalyptic stories as a means of comfort and survive on a curious diet of chocolate and biscuits. But their fantasy world is disrupted by the arrival of Cosmo Disney, a modern Adonis of a man who confronts them with the harsh reality of the world and forces them to ask themselves unsettling questions.
In one memorable scene, Disney eats a cockroach for entertainment. Those first audiences reacted exactly as might be imagined. “I got a lot of stick at the time, a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, as if anyone would ever do anything that disgusting’, and of course now you get film stars doing it on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!” The world we live in, then, has changed, and with it our perceptions of our world. “I think what will be different now is that people will be able to come along and see it as a piece of drama and not a sequence of oh-my-god shockfest moments.” Ridley is clearly bemused by the furore that has surrounded his work. “It was just a play. I didn’t know it was going to have that kind of reaction. I don’t think any writer that is worth their salt sets out to write a play for shocks.”
But Ridley is no stranger to controversy. One of his most recent works, Mercury Fur, was deemed so extreme that his regular publisher refused to put the play to paper. Daily Telegraph critic Charles Spencer described it as “the most violent and upsetting new play since Sarah Kane’s Blasted”. Strong words indeed. But with his training as a visual artist at Saint Martins School of Art, Ridley arrived on the scene in a rather different manner to other In-Yer-Face playwrights such as Kane. “When The Pitchfork Disney happened I wasn’t part of the theatrical landscape at that time, which is possibly part of the play’s strength. I was kind of into theatre completely left of field. I had no preconceptions of what I should or shouldn’t be doing, I just had this play that came out of my world of paintings and drawings and performance art.” The strand that unites Ridley’s work in theatre, film and visual art is his enthusiasm for stories. “Sometimes they come out as a sequence of paintings, sometimes they come out as a stage play. But the images that I put in plays are not really the images I would paint.”
To be found in his plays is a dark, dystopian view of the world, and one that Ridley believes the younger generations can best comprehend. “They get the ridiculousness and the savagery and the irrationality of the world that we live in and they realise it’s a kind of amoral thing. There is no one going to abseil in and give us answers. Religion can’t do it; politicians can’t do it. We’re living in chaos. And we just join the dots to make sense as best we can.” Our culture of instant information has reached the point of complete saturation. We are never more than a few clicks away from watching comedy or tragedy,violence or humility. With YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, we are the generation that understands and perceives the world around us for its good and its ill, as no generation has before. It is “a change of consciousness which is fascinating and exciting”.
This goes above and beyond theatre itself. “Seeing something happen has an effect on us that is much more visceral and immediate than it ever was before. To see the effects of war, to see the effects of people being harmed [has] changed things… There’s a kind of new politics. That is really exciting to me. It’s nothing to do with political parties or agendas. It’s just about humanity; it’s just about caring for people.” Ridley’s new play addresses the zeitgeist directly. Shivered (opening at Southwark Playhouse on 7 March) stretches over 12 years and tells the fragmented story of two families who move to the fictional town of Draylingstowe. “They move into this new town with all the ambition of a new car plant opening, new jobs, new town, green hills and everything is going to be fantastic. Then it shows bit by bit how that disintegrates and disillusion sets in. Its kind of a state-of-the nation meets a dreamtime kind of play.”
Ridley champions young writers who are “trying to get theatre back to its basics”. They must show “a kind of resistance to, or a reconsidering of, some of the bigger, more bombastic theatre.” In essence, good storytelling and real emotion. “There is a turning towards something which is much more raw and visceral. There is something very ritualistic and exhilarating and tribal… about sitting close to somebody going through something and feeling something with them. It’s about empathy; getting an audience to… feel something for a situation that normally they wouldn’t.”
With the experience of working in a range of mediums, Ridley reflects that much of his theatrework is concerned with claustrophobia. “It’s about being locked in that room with those people and of course cinema can do that but it’s a different kind of experience. So I want them to work as stage plays.” A reluctance, then, towards the calling of Hollywood? “I’m very wary of this kind of strange hierarchy of where we see the arts these days… I don’t see it like that. Stage plays are meant to be seen in a theatre in a closed space with real actors.” Ridley seems to have found a like-minded director in Edward Dick, who takes the helm of the Arcola‘s revival of The Pitchfork Disney.
“The last time I visited the rehearsal room all that was on stage apart from the actors was a chair. I really like the way it’s looking because you can just see the performances and just let the actors create this journey, so hopefully the lights will go down and things will begin to explode.” There are always nagging nerves, however. “Its terrifying. Terrifying and exciting in equal measure… If it’s got any theatrical chops at all it should feel like a different play now. It should still carry theatrical weight.”
Yet beyond the terror of watching the performance, there is the joy of creation. “You’re just trying to tell the story as clearly and as inventively and as thrillingly as you can for an audience.” And how does Ridley describe his process when he wrote The Pitchfork Disney, his self-proclaimed “hand grenade” of a play? “I was just doing my thing. And hopefully it’s that that makes the play still feel fresh and relevant.”
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