There are many Philip Ridleys. There is the children's author, winner of a Smarties Book Prize and creator of well-loved characters such as Poppy Picklesticks. There is the playwright of the apocalypse, feted and reviled in equal measure, who so terrified the bourgeoisie with Mercury Fur (2005) that Faber and Faber refused to publish it and theatre-goers walked out nightly. There is the film-maker: author of the screenplay of The Krays, the mesmerising 1990 biopic starring the brothers Kemp, and director/ writer of the cult classic The Reflecting Skin, with Viggo Mortensen in the lead. Then there is the St Martins-trained performance artist, photographer and painter. Philip Ridley is akin to a hologram: different every way you look at him. And the first thing this intimidating polymath says, when I meet him in his rehearsal space at the Pineapple Dance Studios? "Hello. I'm Phil. Doesn't it smell like the school gym in here? Terrifying."
We toddle off to a nearby café. He is instantly likeable, warm yet vulnerable, with a big baseball cap rammed on as if for protection. He is "thrilled" about the project in hand: a revival of his 2000 play, Vincent River, at Trafalgar Studios, starring Lynda Bellingham and Mark Field. It's a timely revival, he says, because, as a play that centres around a homophobic murder, it is more relevant now than when it first opened.
"You walk around the East End now and you see homophobic graffiti. You see some extremely enlightened graffiti, but you also see swastikas. Lots of them. There's anti-gay fundamentalism coming from both Islam and the Catholic right. You hear rap lyrics openly calling for 'death to batty boys'. Then you go along to the National Theatre to see Chatroom/Citizenship, a double bill for young people, and when two men kiss one another on stage, there's a chorus of disgust from the audience. The teenagers make retching sounds. Honestly. It's scary stuff."
So is Vincent River a play about gay issues? "No more than Suddenly Last Summer is about gay issues." The first time it was performed, theatre critic Benedict Nightingale called it Ridley's "best play to date", but its social realism was largely written off. "People were quick to say, 'This kind of homophobia doesn't exist any more, we're all liberals now.' Well, that's not my experience. Since the play premiered we've had a killing on Clapham Common, we've had a nail-bomb in Soho. We've seen photographs of beautiful young men being hanged from a crane in Iran, surrounded by cheering crowds. What was their crime? They were having a relationship. We're beginning to realise that liberal culture is a thin veneer."
Ah yes. Civilisation, to Ridley, is paper-thin. His canon of plays, from The Pitchfork Disney (which opened starring Rupert Graves in 1992) to Leaves of Glass (Ben Whishaw and Maxine Peake took the leads at the Soho Theatre in 2006), are all set in a distinctive half-world where society is deteriorating and apocalypse is just around the corner. Before meeting Ridley, I had always thought they were composites of the barbaric past and a dystopian future. Now I see that, to him, they are set in the present.
"My plays are about now. Or tomorrow morning. Artists I really admire, such as JG Ballard and David Cronenberg, their take on society is always a beat ahead of where it's going. Not that I would compare myself with them, of course" (one of Ridley's vices is modesty) "but my plays to a certain extent have that." The Fastest Clock in the Universe, his 1992 surreal study of male vanity and homoeroticism, was originally derided as fantasy, but directly after, along came Marky Mark Wahlberg in his pants, the cult of Calvin Klein, and the rise of the metrosexual.
It is to be hoped that the nightmare vision of Mercury Fur is not equally prophetic. This seems unlikely – its premise being a uniquely and precisely horrifying combination of elements including torture tourism, a boy wearing a golden suit, and – the scariest word in the English language – meathooks. But Ridley is quick to point out that a parallel scenario occurred soon after in Iraq. "It was Mercury Fur re-enacted. All-American farm boys from Idaho, going to church on Sundays and eating apple pie, and all it took was 10 weeks without moral responsibility for them to be raping small girls and filming it on their mobiles, by all accounts."
If there is a whiff of defensiveness about his retort, it is because he is still scarred from the furore surrounding its first showing. Mercury Fur was Ridley's fifth play for adults, commissioned by Paines Plough and performed at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2005. A now-legendary production, it was directed by John Tiffany and starred Whishaw, both of whom have since gone on to greatness. The play is gut-wrenching yet never graphic: as in a Greek tragedy, its violence is largely reported. Its characters grapple with questions of love and decency. It has a moral core; a sense of redemption, even. Yet the outraged response to the play overlooked all this. It was as if Ridley was being arraigned for his own vivid gift. "People said, 'It's sick – you see a child being tortured on stage.' You didn't, but people seemed to think you did." Most punishingly, drama critic Charles Spencer said Ridley was "turned on by his own sick fantasies".
"That personal attack just floored me," says Ridley. "It's horrible when all you're trying to do is work, and you hope you have something to say about the world and the times in which we live, and then people just call you 'sick' and 'pervert'. As if we're living in some Utopia and I'm trying to spoil it for everyone. What I did in Mercury Fur, I did for a reason. I like putting people on a ghost train, but I guide them safely through the other end; I don't want to keep them there, I want to take them on a ritual of exorcism." '
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Did the public censure make him feel he had gone too far? "In the act of writing it never occurs to me that anything is shocking or not shocking. It would have been moral cowardice not to take it to the conclusion that the play was setting up."
Worst of all, Ridley's publisher, Faber and Faber, refused the play. "I couldn't believe I'd been caught up in that controversy in this day and age. The first comment that the editor at Faber said to me was, "I've got to tell you that several people here are seriously offended by this." I have a thing about dialogue, so I remember. Those were her words. It was as if they'd all suddenly turned into a bunch of Cardinal Wolseys, deciding what was right and wrong. It's not their job to be moral arbiters; it's their job to publish. I think Faber realised they couldn't say this, so after a few weeks they decided to rephrase it as, 'It's a piece of writing that I do not admire.'"
Ridley moved to Methuen, taking his back- catalogue with him. Mercury Fur has since been in constant demand, with productions both amateur and professional taking place across the world. It is now touring Australia.
A gift for savage prophecy is often unwelcome in society, and Ridley has it in abundance. It seems to bubble up out of him. "I constantly think a lot of my DNA is alien. I look at people and I hear them talking and I think, 'I don't get what you're saying, I don't see the world like you see it.' And then I come out with one word and they look at me as though I've just said the most shocking disgraceful thing. But I've grown up with that. My nickname at school was 'alien'."
Sitting there in the cosy café in Covent Garden, Ridley launches into a speech that brings a real chill, casting runes for the future of East London. "I firmly believe that we will see something terrible happen," he says. "Fundamentalism is on the rise, whether it's from Islam or the Catholic right. It's 'We are right, you are wrong.' It's 'Women should not show their faces.' It's 'Men should not go out with men.' It's a pressure cooker and the lid is screwed on so tight that anger will just erupt in a terrible way. I firmly believe that there will be killings on our streets."
Ridley is something of a recluse. He has lived in the same Bethnal Green tower block since he was born, and his flat is "minuscule", a Peabody dwelling crammed with paperbacks, model dinosaurs, skulls and skins. "You have to take this Bond-esque route to get past the door – there's literally no room to move. I constantly moan to my mates about my lack of space. About three times a year I have these 'avalanches' where about 20 shelves will fall down."
To him, it is heaven to close the door and unplug the phone. "You could lock me in there forever with pens and paper and I'd be happy. As a child I remember watching films where people got life sentences in solitary confinement and I'd think, 'How lovely.'" His mother worked on a supermarket checkout; his father was a lorry driver. "My world was between five streets. You couldn't make a bowl of gravy without someone reaching out to dip a bit of bread in it." It would all come in useful, starting with his screenplay for The Krays.
As a child, he was very sick with asthma. "I didn't talk much, so I grew up listening a lot while at home off school. I was in an oxygen tent for a lot of the time and people tended to think it was soundproofed and talked very openly in front of me." He used to hide a tape recorder under his parents' sofa in the living-room, tape them all night, then write up transcripts. Now he eavesdrops professionally, recording conversations on the bus in Bethnal Green (he mimes holding a Dictaphone surreptitiously over his shoulder).
He is a real poet of place; all his plays are set in the East End. "A dilapidated room above an abandoned factory in the East End of London" is the set direction for The Fastest Clock in the Universe; Vincent River is full of references to "Vicky Park" and Mare Street.
Ridley transcribes local graffiti and photographs passers-by. "Some of the biggest influences on Mercury Fur were the snaps I'd taken of people out and about in fur coats looking very bling, and suddenly this gang started to form in my mind." Everything feeds into his work. "I never know where the life stops and the work starts or vice versa.
"When mates come round and we have a cup of tea, I'm always asking them to read little bits of speeches or taking photographs – my 'studio' is literally four squares of black paper pinned on the wall next to the fridge – or asking them to try on outfits. Most of my mates are actors." Might these actors include Mortensen or Whishaw? Or Jude Law, who starred in The Fastest Clock in the Universe? "I haven't seen Jude for a bit" he laughs. "But the other two are both mates. How blessed am I? They'll be round here and it's on with the sunglasses or the silly hat. We might take 1,000 digital photos in an afternoon, and one of them will just have something special that I can use in a play."
The visual and verbal clearly synthesise in Ridley's head; as an art-school contemporary of Damien Hirst and the Chapman brothers, he sees himself as a Sensation artist, working in a linguistic medium. It's only because theatre critics can't think outside the amphitheatre that they haven't noticed. "It's the most obvious thing to me." And indeed, the insects that recur through his work, variously tortured and vomited up by his characters, the butterfly motif, the shock and scandal: the parallels are all there.
"A lot of the stuff they are dealing with I am dealing with. Birds, insects, crocodiles, dinosaurs, dolphins – there's a menagerie that keeps coming back in my work. I don't plan it that way. Work is a lot like dreaming; it's whatever the unconscious throws up. I love it when you write furiously at night and then the next morning you go back and read it and it's like, 'Oh my God, that's bloody good, I didn't realise I'd done that.'"
Ridley's existence is geared towards work. "I've never earned much; I don't have a mortgage and I don't want one. Everything is set up so I can do the work I want to do, and I don't have to write six episodes of EastEnders to pay the bills." He writes, he says, to understand the world. " My work is not cerebral at all. Telling stories and making images is how I make sense of the world, which is a very confusing place for me. Relationships are very confusing, sex is incredibly confusing. Perhaps I'm not meeting the right people. I open the window and demons fly in. I think what I do in my work is try to make the demons feel welcome.
"I'm at my happiest when I'm alone at the desk in my back room, where I've stuck black paper up at all the windows and I write by one lamp at this desk. I'm at my least lonely when I'm in that cocoon of writing." And there we shall leave Philip Ridley, to conjure his dark and comforting visions. *
'Vincent River': Trafalgar Studios, London SW1 (0870 060 6632, www.theambassadors. com), from Tues to 17 November. Ridley will read from his poetic collection 'Love Songs for Extinct Creatures' on 3, 10 and 17 November at 9.30pm at the theatre
The collection: Eclectic dreams
For Philip Ridley, there's inspiration everywhere
I was 14. I was very ill and unable to leave my bedroom. My mum and dad bought me a radio. It was very new and very swish. I remember tuning it in and this piece of music started. It was like being struck by lightning. I didn't move a muscle for an hour. The music kicked open door after door in my head. I was in floods of tears by the end. I had just heard Shostakovich's Symphony No 5. Shostakovich has continued to be a huge influence on me ever since.
The Marvel comics
The one thing that changed my life, my first obsession and the one work of art that is part of my bloodstream. The Silver Age stories of Spider-Man. And the X-Men. The Marvel universe; I'm still as obsessed as I ever was.
I've always been obsessed with artists who have a signature style. I love directors where you watch five minutes and know it's them, where no one else would have positioned the camera like that. When I was eight or nine the BBC used to show two Hitchcocks on a Saturday night and I remember having sleepless nights, thinking 'How did he do that?'
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