On Philip Ridley and Tender Napalm

The plays of Philip Ridley: the Marquis de Sade meets Liberace. That's not me, that's an American critic whose name escapes me, but it's not a bad description.

I begin rehearsals tomorrow for Ridley's Tender Napalm, for La Boite Theatre Company and Brisbane Festival.

To think of Ridley is to think of violence and beauty. His first play, The Pitchfork Disney (1991), produced at London's Bush Theatre, included images of cockroach eating, finger breaking, snake frying and penis scraping. It's a brilliant work, and heralded what later became known as 'In-Yer-Face Theatre', a whole genre of mostly British '90s playwriting that includes work by Antony Neilson, Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Jez Butterworth, Martin McDonagh and many others. World-beating theatre.         

I have never found violence in Ridley's plays to be pointless. Ridley himself has pointed out that travelling Indian magicians would rip the heads off live birds while, at the same time, they pulled an ace from their sleeve. The shock prepares the audience for the perception of magic. In Ridley's world, violence is often used, as well as in a purely narrative sense, to electrify sensibilities and create space for other sensations. 

Ridley is an eclectic artist. He had his own theatre group when he was six, completed his first novel by seven, and had his first solo art exhibition at 14. He began a degree in Fine Art at St Martin's School of Art at 17. He began making experimental films there, and has continued doing so. He knew and worked with the 'Brit Pack' of young artists such as Damien Hirst who were beginning to attract notice. Hirst, of course, became famous for a series of artworks in which dead animals (including a shark, a sheep and a cow) are preserved—sometimes having been dissected—in formaldehyde. Ridley's sensibilities were similar, but he chose the theatre as his principal platform.

He also collects stamps.

Ridley lives (I think this is still true) in the same black of East End London flats where he was born, above the flat where his grandmother used to live. His work is full of local references, especially to Bethnal Green.

He also collects old paperbacks, comics, model robots, model Cadillacs and model crocodiles.

I met Ridley when my production of his play Brokenville played in the National Theatre's Cottesloe Theatre in London. Brokenville is a play for young people, much like his earlier play Sparkleshark, which I had also directed. Sparkleshark, in particular, is a wonderfully heart-warming example of Ridley's fundamental and firm belief in story. In it, a boy sits alone on a roof top writing stories. A group of bullies find him, but to save himself this boy conjures up a story of danger, mystery and love so compelling that the bullies demand starring roles. It's a perfectly shaped little drama, seemingly a million miles from the blood and violence of his adult work, but actually absolutely within the same frame. I adore it.

Happily, Philip liked our production. Since we were visiting from Sydney, he had not seen anything of the show beforehand. We were a little nervous at what Mr In-Yer-Face might think. But we discovered a man of great charm and generosity. He hung out with us for a few days, taking the customary snaps.

It's fascinating for me to return to Philip's work now. Tender Napalm is a beautiful distillation of so many of the familiar tropes and patterns of his plays and books and films. On one hand, it is very abstract - being set in no time and place - but on the other it's intensely particular in its unwrapping of a volatile relationship. Yes, the violence is there, but so is the tenderness. The language grips with its startling use of metaphor and ambition, and this is reflected in how the bodies of the actors are stretched to their limit. It's conceived very much as a piece of physical theatre, and for this production I'm joined by Garry Stewart, one of Australia's great contemporary dance choreographers and Artistic Director of the Australian Dance Theatre.

I couldn't be luckier.

Here's Phil's favourite song, Wild is the Wind, sung by David Bowie, a song that reminds me of many images and feelings in Tender Napalm.           
Love me, love me, love me, love me,
say you do
Let me fly away with you
For my love is like the wind,
and wild is the wind
Wild is the wind

Give me more than one caress
satisfy this hungriness
Let the wind blow through your heart
Oh wild is the wind, wild is the wind

You touch me, I hear the sound of mandolins
You kiss me
With your kiss my life begins
You're spring to me, all things to me
Don't you know you're life, itself!

Like the leaf clings to the tree,
Oh, my darling, cling to me
For we're like creatures of the wind,
and wild is the wind.



  1. It was Ridley himself who described his own work, Passion of Darkly Noon as, “Marquis de Sade meets Liberace” but also as a work with its own “fairytale language” and “dream logic.” Google the quote and you'll see no American critic said it.

    1. Thanks for writing in Anonymous. In Alek Sierz's book In-yer-Face Theatre (Faber and Faber, 2000), Sierz reports an interview with Ridley in which Ridley commented:

      "One American critic described them [the plays] as the Marquis de Sade meets Liberace. I don't think he meant it as a compliment, but I've always taken it as one" (page 47).

      If Ridley described Passion of Darkly Moon as 'Marquis de Sade meets Liberace', then I guess he was appropriating it from this unnamed American critic. And good luck to him! It's a terrific assessment.


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