Director Ed Dick talks to Tom Wicker about reviving playwright and artist Philip Ridley’s brilliant and brutal debut play, The Pitchfork Disney, at the Arcola Theatre.
When The Pitchfork Disney was first performed at the Bush Theatre in 1991 it had some audience members fleeing with terror. Ridley’s distinctive, darkly surreal fable about a brother and sister besieged in their dead parents’ house by a sinister pair of showmen is filled with disturbing imagery and troubling themes and is credited with ushering in a new generation of writers.
Ridley’s most recent play, Tender Napalm, was showered with praise when it premiered last year. And Pitchfork is the second of his plays to be directed by Ed Dick, following a widely acclaimed staging of The Fastest Clock in the Universe at Hampstead Theatre in 2009. Dick’s previous work also includes productions of Twelfth Night at Regent’s Park and Romeo and Juliet at the Globe, as well as the operas The Rape of Lucretia and The Turn of the Screw.
I met with Dick the day after he and the cast (which includes Misfit’s star Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) moved into Studio 1 at the Arcola, to discuss the appeal of Ridley’s work, getting the best out of actors and his love of myths, archetypes and opera.
Hi Ed. How would you characterise The Pitchfork Disney?
It is about love and loss. It is about a twin brother and sister, Presley and Hayley Stray, who have suffered a terrible act of random violence a decade before we meet them. They have dealt with it by locking themselves up into their parents’ house in East London and telling each other fantastic stories about how horrific the outside world is. This coping mechanism is challenged by the arrival of two strangers, who represent all that is attractive but also terrifying about what lies beyond their front door. Presley’s relationship with his sister is tested in all kinds of ways. His reassertion of love for her at the end is the beating heart of the play, which is one of the most emotionally potent I have ever worked on. This was a surprise to all of us, certainly to me. When you look at the play there are some now-famous images, from Cosmo eating live cockroaches to Pitchfork coming on in a full-bondage mask. But there is an emotionally powerful core at the centre of these extreme elements of horror, which exists both in spite and because of them.
This is the second Philip Ridley play that you have directed. What brought you back to him?
I have wanted to do this play, Philip’s first, for a long time. It is very different, formally, to Fastest Clock. Pitchfork is more abstract, almost in the direction of Tender Napalm. Although, at least on the page, it has a naturalistic setting, it has at its heart an exploration of endlessly fascinating archetypal relationships and of inside versus outside. If you ask Philip about the genesis of the play, he will talk about the opposition of someone who is afraid of nothing and someone who is afraid of everything. This text is about what happens when these two people meet. The other archetype is twins, which is a theatrical device that has been used for thousands of years. Here, you have a brother-sister connection that is extraordinary. So, although the play feels contemporary, it also works at the level of a Greek tragedy in its uncompromising exploration of our deepest needs and darkest desires.
Do you think that was why it caused such ripples when it was first performed at the Bush?
I didn’t see it then, but I would imagine it was a pretty explosive experience in that tiny space. The writing is extremely visceral and the actors have to go through an intensely emotional experience in front of your eyes. And then you have the shock-horror thrills, like the eating of the cockroaches. So when you hear stories of people running away in terror, it is easy to believe them. Obviously, though, that wasn’t going to be enough, coming back to the play 21 years later. What has been so wonderful for all of us working on it is that there is so much more to Pitchfork than just those horror aspects that people talk about in relation to the original production.
So, how have you approached the play in this production?
In terms of its design it is quite expressionistic. It isn’t situated in an entirely naturalistic room. We are engaging with the notion of an inside world in the context of a larger outside world. So, visually, it is almost operatic but also intimate and explosive.
Have you enjoyed working with a small cast?
Yes, because it serves the excitement of the piece. I have treated its direction as a journey of discovery with the actors. To work intensely with a company, to try and help create the conditions in which they can do their best work and connect with each other in the most alive way, is more interesting to me than the intellectual process of “I want to make the play about this.” When actors of this calibre meet a text like this, it is quite explosive; a lot emerges. My job is to create the conditions for that to happen and then to shape it into a coherent whole.
How important has staging the play at the Arcola been to this process?
Occasionally, the marriage of play and space is a terrifically energy-releasing one. And I think that is what is happening here. First of all, we are in East London, so you believe that the characters could live in a house around here. It is almost site specific in that way – the outside world of the play is also the world outside the Arcola. Second, we have really grabbed the space by the balls in terms of the set design, which is a raised platform with no walls or a ceiling, almost like a crucible or a boxing ring. Hopefully, this will make the experience really powerful for the audience.
Throughout your career you seem to have been drawn to plays with archetypal or mythical themes. Do you consciously seek out these elements when deciding what to direct next?
Yes, quite deliberately! To me, these things are as interesting as the specific setting of a piece. I am always looking for things that transcend that specificity, even though it is important and has to be delivered. I suppose the aspiration is to bring a classical sensibility to new work and to treat a classical play freshly, as if it had just arrived on the table. I want to find the elements of Greek tragedy or Jacobean drama in a modern piece; or the modern elements in a Greek play.
So, you are most interested in those things that endure through time?
Yes. For me, theatre is where dangerous things about the human condition can be explored in a safe space. And Philip has tapped into those elements with incredible vigour in this play, which is why it is exhausting and rewarding to work on. It deals with mythic, ancient shapes to do with our fear of growing up and confronting the outside world. And if you can work with actors and help them to go to a place where they connect with such themes, they can have a powerful effect on an audience. Consciously or otherwise, I look for plays that allow for that kind of opportunity.
You have moved between mainstream and Fringe during your career. Do you see a distinction between the two when it comes to exploring “dangerous things” on stage?
If you are doing say Twelfth Night in Regent’s Park, which seats over a thousand people, your job is obviously slightly different to working in a space with 150 seats, although the process isn’t really that different. For me, there is nothing more exciting than staging a big play in a small space – that feeling of it pushing beyond the walls into the wider world.
“Mythic” and “operatic” are words you have used several times. A few years ago you moved into directing opera. Was that inevitable, given your interests?
I think that the coming together of extraordinary dramatic situations and music is pretty thrilling in theatre. So it is certainly something that I am drawn to. Last year I did a new opera, Heart of Darkness, which worked at the same mythic level as Pitchfork. But opera is sometimes tricky because it comes with its own set of rules and conventions. I have been very lucky to work with conductors I really get along with, which is pivotal in opera. In the end, every production leaves its residue on the next one, so I would like the think that I have brought some operatic residue to this play.
And does the play still have power today?
It is amazing just how well it has stood the test of time. It doesn’t feel dated at all. It feels particularly fresh after last summer’s riots. They happened literally just down the road, with the kebab shop owners of Dalston fighting off the rioters about 300 metres from the Arcola. In the play, Hayley has a speech about her out-of-control terror of the outside world invading. The resonances are such that you would think Philip had rewritten it this year. But he hasn’t – it was all there in the first place. Twenty-one years later, it looks remarkably prescient.
The Pitchfork Disney is at the Arcola Theatre from 25 January to 17 March. For more information, and tickets, see: http://www.offwestend.com/index.php/plays/view/7044