Philip Ridley On ... Revisiting The Pitchfork Disney
When it premiered at the Bush Theatre in 1991 the play, which centres on two adults living a feral existence in the East End who encounter the larger-than-life, cockroach-eating Cosmo Disney, caused a sensation and has come to be seen as the starting point of the 'in-yer-face' writing revolution.
The new production, which stars Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Chris New, Mariah Gale and Steve Guadino, will be directed by Edward Dick, who directed the acclaimed revival of Ridley’s The Fastest Clock in the Universe at Hampstead Theatre in 2009.
Memories of the first production
Philip Ridley: Everything looks sweeter looking back. What I tend to remember is, for the first week or so, an audience full of completely confused faces wondering what on earth they were seeing. It was especially odd for me as it was my first stage play, the first thing I’d done like that since leaving art school - my world up until then had been a world of art galleries, so not only was it my first stage play but it was my first experience of working in any capacity in theatre so all of that was very strange and odd and different.
It was a play that grew during its run at the Bush, it had those stunned confused faces in the first week and gradually the audience started to swing round and get what the play was trying to do. So, by the end it became something that was very exciting, though it was so long ago now. I look back and think, my God, it feels like it was a million years ago.
There was a certain thrill to having no expectation at all. I didn’t have that kind of fear - I’ve had it with everything since. Everything else since has been absolutely terrifying, but with that one I didn’t know what I had or what I was doing or what theatre was about. I didn’t even know the way plays were reviewed because I’d been used to getting reviews for art exhibitions and galleries, and at that time the reviews came in very slowly for those kinds of things. I didn’t even know what a press night was, so I sailed through it with the confidence of complete ignorance really.
The birth of ‘in yer face’ theatre
I think I brought in a complete outsider voice because I hadn’t trained in theatre and I hadn’t studied theatre or gone to drama school. I was a visual artist, so what I was bringing to it was an art school, performance art sensibility, which is what a lot of ‘in your face’ theatre started to feed from. I guess in hindsight it all kind of fits in and makes a narrative but it didn’t feel like it at the time.
I had done my first three plays - Pitchfork Disney, The Fastest Clock in the Universe and Ghost from a Perfect Place - by 1994 and that’s the year that most people say the ‘in your face’ thing started. All those seeds were laid before that, but it didn’t feel that I was doing that and no one said I was doing that until many years after the event. Because a lot of theatre commentary tends to be National Theatre and Royal Court-centric, it often seems that the story started there.
Development as an artist (and a playwright)
I was very ill as a child. I suffered and still suffer from chronic asthma and when I was young I was sick in bed for months at a time, so I had to develop a pretty strong interior life to cope with that. One of the things that I did, apart from reading as much as I could, was that I wrote stories and drew pictures. The two things for me ran along in parallel, really. For me, it was all storytelling. I either told a story through drawing pictures or I told a story through writing words. Sometimes, like in Marvel comics, I combined the two.
The two things are hand in hand for me, I don’t see a difference. If I start to think of a story and it’s selling itself by either a character or a bunch of characters talking to each other and telling the story through dialogue, then that is a story that’s told on the stage. If I start thinking of a story and it’s telling itself through a sequence of moving images, then that usually ends up being a film. But the way that a story should be told, and the kind of story that I’m telling, happens at exactly the same time. I never think of a story and think ‘how should that be told?’ The medium of how it should be expressed occurs through the story itself.
I don’t have a problem with the fact that I work across many mediums, it’s other people who seem to have a problem with it. I’ve talked to journalists who end up tearing their hair out trying to get a grip on that. I did an interview ages ago, I think it was a Q&A with Alexander Walker, who wrote for the Evening Standard, and he was going demented saying “Are you this, are you that? You’ve got to be one thing or the other.”
I don’t know where that comes from – I suspect it comes out of most newspapers and magazines being divided into sections. You’ve got to have the book section, the art section, the film section etc. There are lots of artists who crossover, but you can only talk to one journalist usually about one thing, so you get somebody from theatre and someone from books and someone from films - but I’ve never had a problem. For me, it’s just all storytelling, just like with a cook, it’s all cooking.
On being called a ‘shock merchant’
It’s absurd. Comments like that are written by people who’ve never written. You can’t create something like that for two reasons. One, you never know what’s going to shock an audience, anyway. Particularly in films, people are saying ‘the audience will be completely shocked by that moment’ and you do a screening and they love it and then they’re completely shocked by something you hadn’t even thought of. You can’t predict that.
And secondly, you can’t write like that. Writing is like dreaming. I’ve always said that all I do is I let loose a bunch of characters into a room and see what happens and then I just write as honestly and as truthfully about that situation as I can and without trying to censor myself. You just go for the truth of it. All I’ve ever tried to do is be truthful to the characters on stage.
Taking what might be considered the most controversial one, Mercury Fur; when that happened everyone was outraged about a bunch of people getting together to supply a fantasy for somebody in the fantasy world to kill a child. What was I supposed to do? Write a play in which it’s a dystopian tomorrow, in which a gang gets together to form the darkest fantasy of a rich client and that dark fantasy is that he has sex with a hooker? You can do that, people are doing that every day. But you have to raise the stakes.
Those accusations always upset me greatly because I never think that I’m doing that. It only occurred when I started to write for theatre. I’d been working as a visual artist for ten years before The Pitchfork Disney and I’d never been called a shock merchant. It was only in the stage plays that suddenly everyone said I’m out to shock.
Chris New & Mariah Gale in The Pitchfork Disney at the Arcola
The contemporary relevance of The Pitchfork Disney
Pitchfork Disney, for me, was never and is not a fantasy. That was one of the many hurdles that I had a lot of trouble getting over, this idea that it was extreme and that it was fantasy. For me, it was documentary realism. A lot of my friends at that time were living almost shut-in existences. One or two people I went to school with had barely been outside their house, they only went outside to sign-on and the rest were stuck indoors and developed a kind of agoraphobia and were just fearful of everything outside. I started to write about a character like that, who became Presley in Pitchfork Disney.
I was in rehearsals with The Pitchfork Disney yesterday and it’s amazing how much that when the play was first done seemed completely extreme, outrageous and fantastical, doesn’t seem like that anymore. It’s become part of our everyday life. The idea of shut-ins, which is what they’re now medically referred to, people who lock themselves away, is now very common.
The idea of people living complete fantasy lives, which is what Presley and Haley do in Pitchfork Disney, is no longer remarkable since the advent of computer games. Most people playing those games are living more in a fantasy world than they are in the real world. They’ve all got avatars, online names and they know more about fantasy worlds than they know about their own world.
Even the idea of Cosmo eating the cockroach, which was the big shock moment, I remember there was lots of press criticism at the time saying, ‘as if somebody would eat a live cockroach for entertainment’, and now you’ve got film stars doing it on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here without batting an eyelid. So it’s interesting how some of that has become common vocabulary of life. I think that’s a good thing and hopefully it will enable people to see The Pitchfork Disney as a play and look at what it’s doing dramatically, rather than view it as a sequence of shock moments, which is part of its reputation.
A new director, cast, and venue
Edward (Dick) and I had such a good time doing The Fastest Clock together at Hampstead - I enjoyed that production so much. What Ed did in that was throw it into the new millennium and again, what was exciting about doing The Fastest Clock at that time was a lot of the things that felt so shocking in 1992 when it was first done had lost shock value so people were able to see the drama of the play, without sitting there waiting for the next moment that they were going to be shocked. So, here we are now doing The Pitchfork, which is very exciting.
The cast were all names we were discussing from the beginning and were very excited by. The Pitchfork needs trained actors with a range - it contains one of the longest single speeches in contemporary drama, the “I have a recurring nightmare” monologue from Presley which is something like eight or nine pages long. So, you need theatrical chops to pull it off. It requires a lot of stage technique and stage know-how.
It’s also real time, which some actors aren’t used to. Once you’re on that stage, you’re there until you go off. There are no scene breaks to go off and regroup, which is something that really excites me about it. Most of my plays have been in real time, with one or two exceptions. I like the idea that that’s what theatre can do, that it can sit you down and you get actors that can go from A to Z in front of your eyes. There are no breaks. So, I think we’ve got the actors we both wanted and that the play needed to reach the extremes; it is after all a play of extremes. The pinnacles and the depths they have to reach within an hour and 40 minutes is astounding but we’ve got the team to do that.
The new Arcola is a great space. The thing that’s become more important to me over the years is the space in which the plays are done and it’s interesting because that was always vitally important to me when I was showing artwork and it took me a while to realise that the atmosphere of a place was part of what contributed to whether it worked or not. There are certain venues in London at the moment that are exciting me beyond belief. The Arcola does and the Southwark Playhouse does, where I did Tender Napalm last year – I love these raw, more earthy places.
The Olympics effect
I can’t say I’m especially looking forward to the Games - I think I’ll just get out for six months and come back when it’s all over. If you ask most people in the East End what they think about them, they’d probably say the same thing. My memory of it will be endless truckloads of cement going backwards and forwards outside my front door towards the Olympic Village so I’m looking forward to it all quietening down.
I don’t think it would make a dramatic subject for me, but then again you never know. There’s something about this year with all these things colliding; there’s something in the air which is really fascinating, but who knows what that is. In a way, any creative person is completely the wrong person to ask about that moment because it takes about 15 years for it to settle down through the strata and become something you can make sense of.
The play which I’ve got coming up after Pitchfork Disney at the Southwark Playhouse, Shivered, is a play that’s looking back since the year 2000 to now, so it tells the story of the past 12 to 13 years. That quite interests me, where we are now, with a backwards glance, the state of the nation backwards rather than the state of the nation forwards. When I think forward, I usually reach for the nearest handcart and write ‘Hades’ on the front.
- Philip Ridley was speaking to Theo Bosanquet