SEARCH for Philip Ridley’s name online and – besides a rather scary picture of him in a pork pie hat – you’ll find such a wealth of information that you’ll struggle to get a handle on the man.
The 47-year-old Londoner started out as an artist and performance artist, and is variably described as a painter, photographer, director, playwright and author of children’s books.
Critics have heaped praise upon his recent plays yet those glowing reviews don’t quite seem to get to the nitty-gritty of what they’re about.
The online blurb for Tender Napalm, his play coming to Northern Stage tomorrow, talks about “re-setting the auditorium into traverse” before going on to tell us: “the audience face each other on either side of this intimate, explosive and poetic exploration of love in the face of catastrophe”, while a promotional clip is all pulsating music and multiple, almost subliminal, images of warfare, bullets, a baby in womb, aliens and fish.
So when I actually get to talk to the award-winning Ridley about his work, it comes as a relief to find that not only is he the opposite of scary but he also makes his work perfectly easy to understand.
“In essence, it’s a very simple theatrical story: a man and a woman locked at a crucial point in their relationship,” he says of Tender Napalm. “They love each other but something terrible’s happened.”
That terrible incident, whatever it is, and whether the couple can resolve it during their momentous emotional journey, is what powers the two-hander drama that so excited critics during its London run ahead of its current tour.
The reaction was, says Ridley, “a very happy surprise”.
“You can never predict, you never know what is going to happen.
“With a stage play you never know what you’ve got until it’s in front of an audience.
“But with this, from that first night, we got the feeling we were on to something a bit special.
“From day one there were ecstatic reactions.”
It is, he thinks, “very accessible to anybody who has been in a relationship”. Yet there’s no elaborate staging, scenery, dramatic lighting or smoothed-out edges: just two actors, the power of Ridley’s words and the audience.
“I really stripped everything back so it’s a play where two actors sit at either end of a bare stage and that’s it.
“It’s pared-down and rests on words and performance and when that really works I think it’s a thrilling thing.”
Unlike a film, a stage play, he says, needs an audience, whose reactions become part of the process. As “theatre’s the only thing I do where there is some direct connection with an audience”, he’s “always petrified” on first nights.
He adds: “That’s really started to excite me, that kind of feeling of what theatre can do that no other art form can do.
“You finish a painting, look at it and that’s it; it’s finished.
“A play’s never finished until it has an audience.”
This is a man who knows what he’s taking about. He’s all of those things he’s described as on the internet: successful in all those art forms, from his children’s books including Scribbleboy – short-listed for the Carnegie Medal – through radio, songs and poetry to penning the screenplay for The Krays film and writing and directing 2009 horror film Heartless.
“It’s about telling a story for me,” he says. “It’s the same whether it’s a children’s book, stage play, novel, a painting or a photograph.
“One feeds into the other. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
Having an idea for a story and knowing what art form suits it best happen simultaneously. There are certain stories that are novels, he says, while plays such as Tender Napalm will never be a film because that audience interaction is needed to make them work.
“I’ve had many opportunities over the years but I made the decision that none of my stage plays should ever be filmed.”
He tells me he never sets out knowing where he’s going with a play. He never does a synopsis or plans it out.
Which is why he keeps surprising himself and is just as excited as audiences and those critics by his latest theatrical experiences.
“I always try to not repeat myself and push it a little bit. Well, I push it as much as I can!” he says.
But once a play is complete, he’s always sad to move on from the characters he’s visualised and brought into existence: “They are more real to me than anyone in the real world, more alive.
“I’ve lived with them and they’ve been great company. I love all the characters I’ve created.”
Tender Napalm is at Northern Stage tomorrow and Thursday from 8pm. Visit www.northernstage.co.uk or call 0191 230 5151.