Philip Ridley on the return of Dark Vanilla Jungle

Director Philip Ridley. Picture: Getty
Director Philip Ridley. Picture: Getty
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AS Dark Vanilla Jungle returns to Scotland, Philip Ridley talks to Joyce McMillan about the childhood influences that forged his work

Onto a bare stage comes a young woman in her early twenties, wearing jeans, a T-shirt, an expression full of pain and reckless defiance; she opens her mouth, and begins a breathless, relentless monologue that takes us through her descent from a kind of normality into absolute madness, a 21st century hell of delusion and self-abuse.

Off stage, the young woman is Gemma Whelan, comedian, actor, and fast-rising 32-year-old star of the television series Game Of Thrones, in which she plays Yara Greyjoy. For the next 60 minutes, though, she is Andrea, a young woman in East London damaged by a loveless upbringing, and ruthlessly groomed for sex by a gorgeous man she meets on the street. Andrea is the sole character in Dark Vanilla Jungle, the latest play by writer, artist, film-maker, children’s author and cult hero Philip Ridley; and after an award-winning run in Edinburgh last August – when it picked up a Scotsman Fringe First Award – Dark Vanilla Jungle returns to the Traverse Theatre next week, for a three-night run.

Born in Bethnal Green in 1964, Philip Ridley would be the first to admit that he is a hard man to place in the cultural landscape of the UK. A rebel and iconoclast who still lives in the same block of Peabody flats where he grew up as a working-class kid in the 1960s, he is a leading playwright, an acclaimed visual artist, an award-winning filmmaker, and the author of much-loved children’s books, including Krindlekrax and Zinderzunder.

If Ridley’s career defies traditional cultural categories, though, it has won him a passionate following among the generations who have grown up in Britain since the 1960s. And if his best-known plays – including Pitchfork Disney, first seen in 1991, and Mercury Fur, written in 2005 – are famous for their cold-eyed vision of a world full of horror, distortion, and a limitless possibility of violence, Ridley insists that for him, this only represents a reality too often hidden by a veneer of cosy domestic naturalism.

“To me, it was really just a matter of looking out of my window, and writing about what I saw,” he says, now a stylish fortysomething figure in a trademark black hat. “Apart from anything else, there was a real feeling then – in the East End – of living in a landscape that was still scarred by war. I was playing on bomb-sites as a young child, even though the war had been over for 20 years. So that was your childhood, playing among these ruins – it was almost like an alien planet.

“Then when I was five, I started to suffer from such severe asthma that I often couldn’t go out at all, and I spent most of my time in bed. And right from the start, I was happy with my paper and pens, drawing and writing stories and listening to the adults around me. My mum always says I was the cheapest kid to have, because that was all I needed – along with my comic books, Spider Man and so on, which I loved. Because I was so breathless I often couldn’t speak much, so these aunts and great-aunts would come and sit by my bed, and talk; I listened to a lot of female monologues when I was a kid.

“And yes, there was plenty of violence. The passage in the introduction to my plays where I write about my brother and I opening our window to watch the Saturday night fights at the local pub is true. I wasn’t frightened, I was absolutely enthralled, I loved to see the blood.”

It’s difficult to say whether Ridley’s East End upbringing and childhood illness can really account for the extremes of his interest in violence; the introduction to his first volume of plays, published by Faber, details an obsession with blood and disease, and with the dismembering of insects, that seems to border on the pathological. The crucial turning-point in Ridley’s life came, though, when a supportive teacher encouraged him to apply for the painting course at St Martin’s School Of Art; Ridley says that going to St Martin’s, where he arrived in the erly 1980s, “really saved my life”.

“I think, looking back, that I was really terribly depressed throughout most of my teenage years, clinically depressed. It wasn’t only that I was gay; I was also pretty much alone with most of my cultural enthusiasms – I thought I was the only kid in Britain who loved film soundtracks, for instance, and knew who composed them all. And as for being gay – well, you just completely internalised that homophobic culture, you thought it was normal for people like you to be beaten up and teased and ostracised, by teachers as well as other kids. Then I got to St Martin’s and realised there were people who were just gay, and not like Larry Grayson at all; that was a huge thing, a huge relief.”

At St Martin’s, too, Ridley found himself among a generation of students who were rebelling against traditional rigid divisions between disciplines. “When I first got there,” says Ridley, “there was actually a photography department that painting students weren’t allowed to go into! So I did the lot – photography, performance, poetry, painting, big charcoal drawings. One of those was the first thing I ever exhibited, at the ICA. How do I navigate between art-forms? Well, it’s not something I think about, it’s something I do, in whatever way feels right at that moment.”

And it was this process of following his own creative impulse that led Ridley to write Dark Vanilla Jungle, his first monolgue for more than 20 years. “I hadn’t set out to make it a monologue. It began as a kind of snapshot of an area of urban life that I had seen, gangs of young men hanging around with young girls. But gradually I realised that Andrea’s voice was the one I really wanted to hear, the story of a person who’d been treated so badly, and had such self-loathing, that all the misogyny around her just infects her, and destroys her.

“It wasn’t a plan; it’s just about tapping into a truth. And then of course when you find a performer like Gemma – well I said to the director at the outset, we need someone who can start at fever-pitch and then take it from there, and that’s what Gemma does.

“Does it have more of a moral compass than some of my earlier plays, more compassion for Andrea? I don’t know. I love Andrea, but I always love all my characters. I’m certainly not interested in messages or propaganda. My only moral compass when I’m working on a play is to produce something that’s theatrically satisfying, something that will make the audience come out wanting to live more passionately, more fully.

“I do think that in theatre more than in any other art-form, there’s a feeling that this should be good for you, should be for the improving of society, but I don’t buy that at all. And in any case, you can’t be thiking about any of that when you’re making the work. You just have to do it and not give a f***, really. Otherwise you can’t create anything. My ambition is to buckle the world a little, with what I create; then after it’s done, I’ll see whether anyone is interested.”

• Dark Vanilla Jungle is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 27 February- 1 March.