Happy family: Sean Verey and Gemma Whelan to star in Radiant Vermin at Soho theatre. Photograph: Anna Soderblom
Sean Verey and Gemma Whelan star in Radiant Vermin at Soho theatre. Photograph: Anna Soderblom

Philip Ridley is not an artist who aims to please. For over two decades he has been writing plays lauded for their lyricism yet reviled for their subject matter. An East End gangster tortured by a gang of girls, child murder, characters who eat cockroaches – nothing is off limits. So the choice of housing as the subject of his latest play, Radiant Vermin, seems comparatively tame. What could be controversial about that?

The play, which opens this month at Soho Theatre, is a comic satire about a young couple desperate to buy a house, and the lengths they are prepared to go to make their home ownership dreams a reality. What those lengths are, one shudders to speculate.

“It’s more an exploration of capitalism and consumerism, that we’re never satisfied in the West and are endlessly wanting to buy buy buy,” explains Ridley amiably over the phone. “So this young couple manage to get the offer of a house, but then you’ve got to furnish it and then you’ve got a baby on the way.”

Moving house ‘trauma’

Now 50, Ridley has a long and varied CV. Radiant Vermin is his 11th stage play for adults. He is also a successful filmmaker, a children’s author and visual artist. His plays are usually set or inspired by East London, where most of them were written. Born and raised in Bethnal Green, Ridley lived in the same flat on Temple Street for most of his life. When he decided to move out last year, mid-housing boom, the trauma of the experience sparked the idea that became Radiant Vermin.

“It’s was like going to war,” he recalls, “this maelstrom of estate agents and solicitors and surveyors. But out of it came an idea of what might happen if someone was offered a process of buying a house that was easier than what I had gone through.”

The experience made Ridley sit up to what was happening to his beloved Bethnal Green. Needing more space so he could start painting again, he found he could not afford the area where he grew up, where all his family had lived, a place he describes as being “in my bloodstream”.

“No one who wants to move out of a local area in East London can afford to stay in that area. And there’s this thing now where you’ve got places with a ten-foot-high iron gate around them, because they are right next door to a council estate where people have got nothing. It reminds me of Hollywood, where you’ve got huge film stars living in villas, and then you go two streets away and you’ve got slums – and that’s an explosion waiting to happen.”

Shock tactics

Whether Radiant Vermin, in its own way, causes an explosion, remains to be seen – though it wouldn’t be the first time. The words ’cause celebre’ have been used to describe Ridley’s work more than most, ever since a charcoal drawing he made as a student, of a man ejaculating a black bird, sent minor shock waves through the art establishment when it was shown at the ICA. Ridley knows the charge sheet well. His third play, Ghost from a Perfect Place, includes a scene where an old gangster is tortured with lighted cigarettes by a girl gang. The Guardian‘s Michael Billington described it as “degrading and quasi-pornographic”. Then there’s Mercury Fur, most controversial of all, a play denounced as “poisonous” by the Daily Telegraph, in which a child is sadistically murdered for entertainment. But the accusation that Ridley is out to shock is something he has always denied.

“If something ends up being shocking it’s because it’s come out of being real. You cannot predict what’s going to cause outrage with an audience. This idea that it can be contrived … that’s not the way the artistic process works. It’s like dreaming. I sit down and I dream the next play. I’m not in control of it in that sense. And then it receives another life when people start to talk about it.”

While Ridley is at the stage now of being more revered than reviled, it is interesting to look back at the vehemence of his detractors. The fevered response to Mercury Fur saw one critic accuse Ridley of being “turned on by his own sick fantasies”, and in 2010, his play Moonfleece, about the rise of the BNP, was banned by Dudley Council. But Ridley argues this says more about how we view theatre, than about his particular brand of it.

“No one goes around saying Cronenberg is a sick human being, or that Tarantino wants to go out and kill someone, you know? In every other art form there’s not that link made, but in theatre there’s still an echo of that Victorian moral values thing, that it should be edifying, a medicine that people are taking. There’s still a patrician sort of etiquette that hangs over it, almost like the subject matter dictates what the thing is.”

Philip Ridley: “No one goes around saying Cronenberg is sick, or that Tarantino want to go out and kill someone”

Ridley points to the double standards applied to the classic plays. In King Lear, a man’s eyes are pulled out; in Medea a woman eats her own children. Their standing is never questioned, we stress their continuing relevance. Yet Ridley’s plays, for claiming to represent the present day, seem more dangerous.

“You sit through a play like Mercury Fur and people say this could never happen, and of course we’ve been through times where that has now happened. No artist wants to die with it written on their tombstone that he or she pleased the critics. I mean that’s the least of my ambitions really.”

Solitary child

Ridley’s determination to stick out may, psychologically, stem from his childhood, which was dominated by chronic asthma, a condition that was not easily treated at the time. He missed a lot of school, and was in and out of hospital and in oxygen tents until he was 13.

“As a result I was a very solitary child. I didn’t really have any friends so that meant that I was sitting up in bed, reading and writing. My interior life had to become my company, because I had no peers of my own. I grew up conversing with adults more than I conversed with other children.”

When Ridley did finally go to school, he was the weird one, a boy who didn’t know how to have a conversation with children his own age. They called him ‘Alien’, and looking back, he says, he can see he was in a very “down state”. Nevertheless, he was high achieving, and when the time came he faced a 50-50 decision of studying English Literature or Art at university. He chose art.

“Going to art school saved me really. St Martin’s at the time was such a thrilling place to be, it was a very exciting, dynamic place. I knew I could always read books and study books, but I couldn’t always get into a lithographic studio or an etching studio and have access to models to paint.”

All rounder

Inevitably, our conversation turns to being a multi-disciplinary artist. As a playwright, Ridley is credited with kicking off In Yer Face theatre, as a visual artist he’s up there with the YBAs. Which is not to mention filmmaking and fiction writing. And song-writing. It’s a subject that fascinates journalists, though Ridley less so.

“It seems to be something that either bothers or interests people more than it does me, he says. “In its most simplistic sense I’m just telling stories. If I think of a story and see two people talking to each other then it’s obviously a stage play. If I think of a story and its images are moving, and there’s not much dialogue then that’s usually a film. If I think of a story and it’s a sequence of images, then that’s either a photograph or a painting. For me they’re not different things at all, they’re all part of the same mountain but just different peaks at the top.”

Lack of affordable housing is a defining feature of our times, especially in East London. Bearing this context in mind, is Radiant Vermin a state of the nation – or state of East London – play? “That’s not for me to say,” he responds coyly. Ridley’s modesty and refusal to look too deeply into the creative process appear to be characteristic traits. Once in an interview he said he admired artists who had a “signature style”, such as Alfred Hitchcock. How would he describe his own signature style?

“I don’t think I have one,” he responds. “Other people tell me I have but I’m not aware of it, and I think that’s right. I don’t want to go into writing the next stage play knowing I’m writing the next play by me. I just want to see where it takes me. It’s the duty of every artist to assassinate themselves every now and then. You’ve just got to kill everything and start all over really.”

Radiant Vermin is at Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, W1D 3NE from 10 March– 12 April

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