Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Philip Ridley - Tonight With Donny Stixx

When Philip Ridley's play, Dark Vanilla Jungle, first appeared in 2013, its unflinching portrait of a vulnerable young girl groomed by gangs for sex accidentally reflected real life events with startling prescience. As a follow-up of sorts, Tonight With Donny Stixx, which arrives in town just weeks after shootings close to a high school in Illinois, appears to have done something similar.

Given the prevalence of real life parallels with Ridley's tale of Donny, the teenage gunman who becomes the most hated boy alive even as he craves his own TV chat show, it's perhaps surprising to hear Donny's creator and a man whose creative output has straddled stage, film and the visual art world describe his play as “one of my most autobiographical pieces. It's about someone from a dysfunctional family who is very isolated.”

The crucial difference here between Ridley and Donny is that where Donny picks up a gun, Ridley has produced a series of plays and novels that have mined the darker side of human nature that arguably began with his screenplay for the 1990 film, The Krays, and his debut play, The Pitchfork Disney, a year later.”

“I became fascinated by something I heard a writer say once,” says Ridley. “They said they lost their temper once as a teenager and started to beat someone up. They were stopped from doing it, and they said that was why they became a writer, and I get that.

“I think within all of us there's a moment you can flip. You only have to see two people in a road rage incident to see what can happen, and if you lose it and have a gun, you end up with something like what's happened in America. One of the things the play deals with as well is public shaming, which is such a new thing, where people can be humiliated now by people capturing something on their iphones.

“There's this new culture now of people having to resign because of something they said which is made public, whereas ten years ago it would only be known by people in the same room. Things are all pervasive these days, and with teenagers that's something that becomes much bigger through social media and stuff going viral. I wouldn't be a teenager now for anything.”

If real life events look set to give Tonight With Donny Stixx an extra edge, the gangs of men convicted for grooming teenage girls in northern England made Dark Vanilla Jungle equally timely.

“I think it made it very emotional,” Ridley reflects. “I hadn't written Dark Vanilla Jungle using any kind of documentary evidence. I just took Andrea, the protagonist of the piece, in that direction and it became darker and darker. Just knowing that sort of thing was so prevalent for teenage girls gave it a resonance, but all of us picked up on what was going on in Manchester, and that gave things a real rawness.

“One of the things about Andrea is that she got no help. I saw the play as being about misogyny, not just from men, but from other women who don't help her. I've heard it from certain members of my own family that if a girl goes out dressed in a certain way then she deserves it if anything happens to her, and that's an attitude that prevails.”

While Andrea was played to devastating effect by Game of Thrones star Gemma Whelan in Tonight With Donny Stixx director David Mercatelli's production for the Supporting Wall company, Donny will be played by Sean Michael Verey, best known as hapless teenage father Jamie in BBC3's Edinburgh-filmed sitcom, Pramface. Both Whelan and Verey recently appeared in Radiant Vermin, another Ridley/Mercatelli collaboration which saw Ridley make a rare foray into comedy in a satire about the housing crisis.

“All I'm doing is trying to tell stories about the world around me,” Ridley says after being asked where his penchant for dark material comes from. “With what's going on in the world, and particularly here with the right wing taking over everything, a more pertinent question might be to ask why people are writing happy plays.

“I look out my window and the demons fly in, but I don't contrive it. I sit down and write something and if that's the way it goes then that's the way it goes, but a play's subject has no impact on its theatrical impact. An audience watching King Lear or Medea or Electra can come out as exhilarated as they can after watching Mamma Mia! Dark matter in plays doesn't make audiences depressed. They can make audiences come out and face the world with more intensity.”

Ridley has told such stories since he was a boy growing up in the East End of London.

“I was really debilitated by asthma at a time when the drugs weren't very good,” he says. “So if you had asthma you went to hospital. I was really socially dysfunctional and didn't have any friends, so I would just tell stories through words or drawings in a way that would now be called graphic novels. I read Marvel comics, and for me they were much more real than the world I was living in.”

Ridley studied painting at St Martin's School of Art, did perfomance pieces at the ICA and started his own theatre company before his short film, The Universe of Dermot Finn, was shown on Channel 4 and at the Cannes Film Festival. He has written prose and drama for children as well as adults, has directed three feature films, including The Passion of Darkly Noon, for which he penned a song performed by PJ Harvey, and has exhibited his photography.

Unsurprisingly, Ridley never holidays, and despite producing such a diverse array of work, sees each means of expression as doing the same thing.

“I see no difference between all these things I do,” he says. “If you write about pop music you can't write about David Bowie without mentioning William Burroughs or Bertolt Brecht. It's all connected. I blame the style magazines for separating things by genre.

“I'm doing now what I've always done, There are stories in your head that have got to come out or they'll tear your head apart. It's about trying to make sense of a world that's become increasingly senseless, and stories help to disentangle that. Most of the time it's the darkest parts that come out, but they're the parts that people need to see.”

Tonight with Donny Stixx, Pleasance Courtyard, Aug 5-31, 2.45pm.

The Herald, August 12th 2015


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