“You can tell it’s one of my plays they’re rehearsing up there,” says Philip Ridley with a glint. We are sitting in the Old Red Lion in Islington, with its etched glass and dark wood, its vermillion pillars and nicotine ceiling, and the comfortable Thursday afternoon pub carpet quiet is being punctured by the sound of screaming, slicing down the stairs from the theatre above.
Ridley’s work has had an association with the Old Red Lion for some time now. A revival of The Fastest Clock in the Universe was staged there last November and Ned Bennett’s stomach-knotting, breath-stopping production of Mercury Fur was performed there in 2012. “I love this place to bits. I love buildings with a sense of theatre, places where just the act of walking through the door is a theatrical experience.” There’s been a theatre above the pub for over three decades and you can feel that history, Ridley says. “I am drawn to smaller spaces, places with atmosphere and a better energy.” The old Southwark Playhouse, in the vaults beneath London Bridge station was a particular favourite (and where Tender Napalm and Shivered had their premieres).
This ties in with a wider belief that theatre should be extraordinary, an escape from the everyday; there’s something primeval about it, he says, sitting around the campfire and listening to the witch doctor telling stories, the sense of communication and connection, the power that comes from being in a room together, sharing an experience, the held breath, the prickling of skin. He also believes that theatre should generate a sense of event. This is part of the reason he often performs poetry readings alongside productions of his work and why, for Piranha Heights, he’s written a new monologue, Vesper, to be performed after the show, to enhance that sense of occasion.
It’s a bold move, he says of Stewart Pringle’s decision to launch his inaugural season as artistic director with a revival of his 2008 play, Piranha Heights. “This is a play which comes with a lot of warnings, a lot of – nasty everything.”
The play – originally performed at Soho Theatre – tells the story of two brothers who in the wake of their mother’s death are feuding over who has the right to live in her council flat. This domestic set-up is soon skewed in different directions and the flat becomes a battle ground. It’s part of a loose trilogy, along with Mercury Fur and Leaves of Glass. “It wasn’t intentional but the plays ended up sharing certain themes, about brothers and family and love, and certain images occurred in all of them. Piranha Heights sees those ideas pushed to a more monstrous place.”
“It does that trick, rather like Psycho, of making you think you’re watching one thing and then it takes a left turn and goes somewhere else. I was surprised when that started to happen. I love moments like that: I think ‘yeah, let’s just go with it, let’s just ride with it’.”
It is, he says, a haunted play, with the character of the late mother a very real presence within it. “Anyone who’s experienced the death of a close relative instinctively gets that, how they’re more real, more present, by not being there. My dad died three years ago and that’s exactly how I feel with him: he’s more present in my life now than when he was alive strangely enough – I’m hearing him and seeing him and feeling him in a way that I didn’t when I took his presence for granted.”
“The play is about grief. Every character in the play has lost something.” This is exemplified in the character of Lily, the only (living) woman in the play, wrapped in other-ness, speaking in a cod foreign language. “She’s the ultimate survivor, she’s verging on science fiction; she will adapt to whatever’s around her in order to survive. The real Lily only reveals herself for one or two lines at the climax of the play. The hallucinagenica of who she is dissolves and you see the girl beneath it. She’s this new breed of person – I’ve seem glimmers of them around – who can morph, who can become what she needs to be to survive. It’s the result of trauma: the whole of the play is about trauma.”
Having recently rewatched The Krays, the film starring the Kemp brothers as the near-mythic East End gangster twins for which Ridley wrote the screenplay, I ask how it fits in with this trilogy, these patterns. If there are overlaps, they’re not intentional: Ridley says he doesn’t set out to write a certain thing a certain way, he uses the word alchemy a lot when talking about the process. Factually he says, the film was distorted, inaccurate and “I got a lot of stick for that when it first came out, but I was trying to create a kind of unreal truth.” He honed in on the things in the Krays’ story which interested him. “Initially they wanted a police procedural but that didn’t suit me. But there were things in their story that chimed with what I was already writing about and exploring – the first draft of The Pitchfork Disney had already been written at this point. The things I picked up one were the question of how a family can exist knowing and not knowing that two of them are psychotic and violent, how does a mother deal with that? The strong mother, the homosexuality – all of these things attracted me – and there’s not a policeman in the whole thing.”
He’s confident Piranha Heights is in good hands with director Max Barton. Returning to the play after a period of years, he’s struck by how aspects of it feel more current, and how the brothers’ fight over the flat, their argument over who should take ownership of it, has come to feel even more relevant than when it was first produced. “With the housing market as it is now, that’s all too real.” The way people think about houses, and by extension, home, has shifted. “I think it’s had a terrible effect on communities. Why should you care about a place when you might not be there for longer than 12 month? The flats I used to live in as a child in Bethnal Green, they were immaculate, and people took great pride in cleaning their steps – I know it sounds like a cliché but they did, because they thought they were there for life, but now you see rubbish everywhere, because no-one is invested enough in the place to look after it as a home. And I think that has been devastating.”
The idea of home is central to the play. “Everyone’s looking for a home.” And the flat, with its chandelier, is very much a character. “When people used to ask me how I wrote my plays, I often used to say I take two characters and throw them in a room and lock the door and if something starts to happen then I’ve got a play. The room that I throw them in is the third character; it has to have a story to it. That’s definitely the case in Piranha Heights. The chandelier is a very potent image in the play and a reservoir for lots of feelings. You almost feel as if it should come on and take a bow at the end.”
Ridley studied painting at Saint Martin’s School of Art and continues to work as an artist, which might account for his strong sense of the visual as a writer, the one thing feeding into the other. He always, he says, has very fixed ideas of what characters look like. “I have to hold myself back when describing them. If you look at some of the earlier plays, the descriptions go on for half a page. If someone asked me what they would wear, I could tell you; I could tell you their eye colour, everything.”
Piranha Heights is a very prop-heavy piece, but later plays saw him moving in the opposite direction from the room-as-character approach; as a writer he likes to feel like he’s “going into new territory all the time and as soon as something starts to feel like something I’ve done before, I don’t want to do that.” The play that followed Piranha Heights was the spare yet febrile Tender Napalm. “I really wanted to push myself, to go somewhere that felt a bit scary. I was really thrilled with the way that Tender Napalm started to go because it was a completely new direction. It’s just two people in a space.”
While he doesn’t draw a direct line between them, when Piranha Heights was on at Soho, he started to do poetry readings as post show events and started to write a lot more poetry. “I guess that might have fed into Tender Napalm because that play was just language – no set, no props, and two lighting cues – lights up at the start and down at the end and that’s it. Everything was taken away.
“Sometimes you do things just as a voyage for yourself. Like Dark Vanilla Jungle: can I write through the eyes of a fifteen year old girl a monologue that lasts for one and a half hours, without a prop, without a lighting change, we didn’t even allow poor Gemma Whelan a chair. I’m really excited by that, stripping everything down just to language. It’s excites me, the discipline of it, there’s nothing to rely on but the words.”
As another scream echoes above us I ask if that’s something he wants to probe further, this pared down approach, these worlds of words, but it’s clear that’s not how he works. “I never know where I’m going next.”
Piranha Heights is at the Old Red Lion, London, from 11th November – 6th December 2014