The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

Dreaming the Sparkling Monster

In today's cultural desert the storyteller is someone who can help people to understand that terrors of life.

From his earliest years Philip Ridley has told stories and drawn pictures. When it came to higher education he chose art college where, refusing to become constrained by the tradition of specialising in a single discipline, he insisted on working in many different media. As well as painting he wrote stories, performed poetry, experimented with photography and film and set up his own theatre company for which he wrote, directed, acted and composed music. His first published work, Crocodilila, was written when he was 18. Ostensibly an academic treatise which was part of his course, it was a story in which he reflected on the images he was engaged with in his visual art. Creatively, Philip Ridley has made many journeys, but all of them seem rooted in Bethnel Green, the heart of London's East End.

I still live in the block of flats where I was brought up. My grandparents, all my aunts and uncles, cousins and second cousins, we all lived down the same street and all my parents’ friends were called ‘aunt’ or ‘uncle’. So I grew up in this extended family where everyone knew each other. One of my earliest memories is of a street party to celebrate England's football team winning the World Cup. Everyone was dancing and singing along to ‘Shout’ by Lulu. As childhood memories go that must rate a ten. Pure magic. But of course, living in that part of London there was plenty of menace too.

Menace and magic seem to be major components in all of Philip Ridley's work and, in particular, in Sparkleshark. Although the play eventually deals with an imaginary world of enchantment, it has its roots in violence. The play starts with Jake taking refuge on the roof of a tower block. He is a victim, the classroom ‘geek’ who is bullied by the boys and avoided by the girls. Before long seven other young people join him and an eighth, Finn, can be heard off stage. As soon as they discover Jake, the taunting begins and leads to a life-threatening incident, the outcome of which is decided on the whim of Shane.

In many ways Jake is me. Or rather, an aspect of me at a certain stage of my life. I was always very different from other kids. To start with I was chronically ill with asthma. I couldn't do sports or run around and play. Also, probably as a result of being bedridden for weeks at a time, I was a bit of a loner. I read a lot - superhero comics mainly - and wrote my own fantasy stories. My interior world was always more real than what was going on around me. My nickname, by the way, was ‘alien’, which gives you some idea of what my classmates thought of me. Needless to say, I was bullied mercilessly. I can honestly say that on at least three occasions I was lucky to get out alive. And this, in a way, is the menacing viciousness at the heart of the play. What you do as a writer is to take this single aspect and magnify it into everything. You concentrate on the micro until it becomes the cosmic.

In contrast to this menacing viciousness, the magical aspect of the play - and the most surprising - is the way in which the tower-block teenagers become enmeshed in a fantasy about a princess, a dragon, a forest and a suitor in search of impossible gifts.

At first glance it might seem that the teenagers would find no meaning in this story at all. Certainly there's an initial resistance to it. But Jake, Polly and Natasha gradually persuade - seduce, if you like - the others into taking part. By the end, all of them have roles in this fairy story. But you see, in a way, this is perfectly natural for them. After all, they are playing roles when the drama begins. They're playing the stereotypical roles that their immediate social structure - in this case, school - has forced them into. They are, if you like, the natural stereotypes that any group of people, especially in a school, tends to produce: the bully, the geek, the 'Mr. Cool', the victim, the wannabes, the swat. In Sparkleshark all the characters realise they can shake off these roles by playing other roles. And they do it through the ritual of storytelling. And, in these new roles, they attempt to communicate their true emotions for the first time.

Communication is one of the main themes of the play: how we do it, how we fail to do it, how difficult it is, how easy it is to send the wrong signals. Thus the satellite dish is more than a device to get Polly on the roof. It is the overriding symbol of the drama: it has to be angled precisely if it is to receive a clear, undistorted picture from the satellite. And so it is with the characters in the play. Until now their images of each other - and themselves – have been distorted. During the course of the play they discover a way of channelling the energy - themselves - honestly and clearly.

All of the characters, during the course of the fairytale, learn to feel something. They have a revelation about themselves. They exorcise some of their fear. The fairytale gives them the courage to do this. In order to feel something it has to have a ritual.

Even Finn, who is an extreme example of non-communication, shares in this ritual by the end. Like the others, he is immersed in all the things that prevent young people from expressing their true feelings. But in Finn’s case it is heightened by the fact that, even by his peers, he is perceived as a stupid, violent thug, to be avoided at all costs. As a result, Finn has retreated into a world of television and loud music, where even speaking has lost its relevance. But Finn can speak if he wants to - as the end of the play demonstrates. Ironically enough, it is Finn who gives play its title, and he is seen in an entirely new light by the others.

It takes a lot of courage to break out of the stereotypical roles we are forced into. It takes a lot of courage to feel something and then express that feeling. Particularly these days- and particularly for the young – where the whole culture seems to be one of: don’t feel anything, don’t care about anything, violence is cool, there is no tragedy just mildly amusing irony. The young people in Sparkleshark find the courage to break out of this trap. Now I know the end of the play can be considered ambiguous. And I think that's right. After all they have to leave the roof. Who knows what will happen? Perhaps Jake will be hiding between the dustbins again the next morning. Perhaps the bullying and stereotypes will surface once more but, for the moment - one afternoon on the top of a tower block - these characters realise another truth.

Philip Ridley sees the artist as the one who is shrieking out against apathy. In today's cultural desert the storyteller is someone who can help people to understand the terrors of life.

Storytelling has always been a way to exorcise fear. In some tribal cultures the role of the storyteller was taken by the Witch-Doctor. For example, if you were a member of a jungle tribe and your village was being threatened by a tiger, the Witch-Doctor would sit the whole tribe around the fire. He would give everyone a mildly hallucinogenic drug. As the drug slowly takes effect, you stare into the flickering light of the fire and, as you stare, the Witch-Doctor tells a story. It's about a monster threatening a tribe and members of the tribe have to go into the jungle to kill the monster. The witch doctor describes the monster in great detail - every claw and every tooth. The Witch-Doctor’s. story is so vivid, the mixture of the drug and fire is so hypnotic, that you’re there killing the monster. In this dream-time of storytelling you vanquish your fear. The next morning you sharpen your weapons and go out into the jungle. And you say, 'In the dream of my story time I faced his monster. I am not afraid.'