Unlike his previous plays, which unfold with claustrophobic intensity in real time on a single set, Shivered covers the 12 years since the Millennium, contains multiple scenes, an interval (his first since 1994) and ventures out of the East End. “I’m not sure I could go to South London, but I can manage Essex,” chuckles Ridley, a lifelong native of Bethnal Green.
As with all of Ridley’s work, narrative voice was “the key thing” in determining the play’s structure. “I was halfway through when I realised that telling the story chronologically, as I’d been doing, was the least interesting way. It wasn’t making as much sense dramatically and emotionally as I thought it could. So I started breaking things up.”
This has resulted in 17 scenes that Ridley describes as “almost standalone, like a series of short plays. Hopefully I’ve created an emotional chronology that makes sense. I’ve focused on particular moments in the story of this family – and that of another, which runs alongside – and treated them like pieces of a broken mirror. These might not be the moments you expect, but as you piece them together they form a bigger picture.”
Ridley’s language is full of similes and metaphors (he also pokes fun at his alliterative tendencies); and his plays borrow from their allusive nature, twisting and turning with the suggestiveness of fairytales. The figures woven through his speech reflect his dislike of over-explanation, either in his work or when discussing it. “Theatre should make you feel truth like you would in a dream. The meaning is in the feeling and if you try to tie it down it can cease to have any meaning at all.
“That’s why I find interviews so difficult”, Ridley says in what I suspect is only half-mock exasperation. “Suddenly you get asked something that needs a precise answer and you realise that you’ve never thought about it precisely in your life. It’s like being asked to explain why you love someone.”
When I ask if Shivered is intended as a post-millennial comment on where we are as a society, his reluctance to be specific comes through. “Many people have referred to it as a ‘state of the nation’ play and I can see why they’d do that,” he reflects. “But it’s more of a dream state of the nation play. It’s about taking the feelings and emotions of where we are and weaving them into something else. It’s not about events as such. He continues: “The other reason it’s hard for me to answer the question is because I have no idea! I had a dream about a family and called it Shivered. Now, I’m putting it out there, in the real world. But it’s not my role to analyse it. That’s for other people to do.”
This could sound defensive or disingenuous. But coming from Ridley, so frank and open at all other times, it doesn’t. And his dislike of second-guessing his work isn’t him burying his head in the sand. He strongly believes that writers must “avoid wrapping things up in a message” because “nothing dates quicker.” It’s not an artist’s job to have answers. It’s an artist’s job to pose questions.
“Look at all those films and plays that seemed so avant-garde in the Sixties. My God how they’ve dated, because they were playing to the moral agenda of the time,” he points out. “You’ve got to be careful not to get caught up in the prevailing wind of the day, because that wind can lead you into oblivion.” Instead, Ridley argues, “art should be about scrubbing away the carbuncles and clutter that build up over our eyes and stop us from seeing things clearly.” This means “taking something that people might think of as ordinary and making them look it differently; to find those moments that will make an audience go, ‘Oh! I’ve always felt that but never had it put into words before.'”
For Ridley, digging beneath the skin of society and chucking away the junk of pre-conceived ideas is the only way to produce something artistically honest and truthful, with a long shelf life. This is why Pitchfork‘s original reviews frustrated him and some people’s reaction to his work annoys him still – particularly those who dismiss it as fantasy or make-believe.
“All I’ve ever tried to do is to be brutally honest,” he says; “to write from my experience of the world, without censoring myself. That can be a barrier, because we’re brought up watching things that are anodyne, generic or clichÃ©d and end up thinking that’s the way life is.”