Features Q&A and Interviews Published 23 April 2012

Philip Ridley Q&A

An edited transcript of the Exeunt-hosted Q&A with Philip Ridley and the cast, following a performance of his play Mercury Fur at The Old Red Lion earlier this month.
Exeunt Editors

Do you ever plan when writing a piece?  Do you think this is how I’d like it to end, or this is what should happen here?  How much planning goes into writing a piece, and when in that process, how much planning takes place in terms of plot.

Well again it’s a tricky one to answer because it changes all the time. The general thing I can say is that I’ve never started any project knowing how it’s going to end. Sometimes you have certain moments that you want to get to, but then they change as well, so it’s always as if you’re working on quicksand, and that’s how it should be. It should always be, for me that’s the only way that I can work. I don’t want to go into something knowing where it’s going. If I have moments of inverted commas “inspiration”, they happen in the act of writing, they don’t happen away from the act of writing. They happen when you’re completely immersed. And I think this is true of acting, it happens in the moment of doing, you discover something. You don’t discover something when you’re away thinking about it intellectually. And I think that writing is a lot like that. Friends of mine that are writers carefully plan, and they can tell me scene for scene moment to moment, but I don’t work like that.

It’s why I hate taking commissions by the way, I never had a commission from a theatre in that sense. Because you have to go into a theatre and tell them what a play is going to be about, and I can’t do that. If a theatre wants the next play, then I tell them well you have to say you want the next play that I’m working on, because I don’t know what it’s going to be, really. And to be fair a couple of them have done that, but usually you have to almost give them a treatment about what you’re going to do. And if I did that it would change any way. It’s like dreaming, really. It’s a lot like dreaming, allowing the dream to start to happen, immersing yourself in it, and begin to find what feels right.. and then you surprise yourself with something, then something happens and you go “oh god, I didn’t know it was going to go there” and I get scared by that. I know that’s the door I have to go through. If you plan it you can’t surprise yourself, you have to surprise yourself with what you’re doing I think.

Your plays are really funny in a dark sort of way.  Do you try and inject humour into them, because they’re so dark, or do you find that the humour grows organically from these extreme situations?

Yes, it evolves organically really. I never try and do anything, really. Other than just live a life, if you like, that can produce the kind of work that I want to produce. You can only produce stuff from the kind of life you’re living so you hope that you’re filling it up with as much as you can so that when you come to write or act or whatever you’re doing you can channel that all out and it’s there. The interesting thing is that a lot of the plays, when I first give them out, a lot people think they’re not funny. At all. There’s no humour in them at all. It’s not until actors get them, and sometimes the actors are surprised, “my god, that’s a funny line!”  Because you’re reading it. A play of mine that was particularly true for was my second play, called Fastest Clock in the Universe, and when I first gave that over it was “oh dear, this is so dark and depressing” and I thought it was hilarious, I thought it was a drawing room comedy. And people were adamant “you will not get one laugh, on this. This is such a dark subject matter. You have a thirty year old man trying to set up the rape of a fourteen year old boy.” And I was “exactly!”  In the acting of it you saw that there was nothing funnier than other people’s sexual desire, it’s absolutely hysterical. But in the reading of it, it sounded very dark, but it’s not in the watching of it.

HB: You’re like Chekhov. “I’m a comedian, I’m a comedian.”

PR: I am.