In their companion piece to 2013’s Fringe First Award-winning Dark Vanilla Jungle, writer Philip Ridley and director David Mercatali tell the story of Donny, a boy who has committed a shocking and terrible crime. Tonight with Donny Stixx stars Sean Michael Verey in a commanding - and often disturbing - solo performance. Tom Moyser talks to David and Sean about the show, public shame and imaginary jackets.
There’s some people out there, they’re hanging on a thread, and a lot of it is what they’re being fed.
Watching the show is absolutely exhausting. You must be feeling terrible.
Sean: [laughs] Yeah, it’s a bit of everything - it’s emotionally exhausting, physically exhausting. I’m exhausted - shattered - after each show. But if I’m not, I haven’t done it right. I need to feel that to know that I’ve done the job.
Do you like Donny?
David: Yeah. Yeah actually. I think he’s quite honest. There’s nothing duplicitous about him, in anything he sets out to do or say. I think that kind of honesty is easy to appreciate. He’s also quite funny.
Sean: Yeah, I do, I really like him. I feel for him. He says it how he sees it. A lot of the humour comes from that because he says the things that most people wouldn’t dare to say. What you see is what you get. He’s obviously seeing the world in a slightly different, in a slightly skewed way, to how the rest of us see the situation. I do like him, immensely.
I like him as well. I would be surprised if many people could see the show and not like him. But do you think this is a problem, ethically, given what we know Donny has done?
David: No I think it’s the point. I think it’s important. Actually, I think it’s really important because I think people do awful, terrible things but I don’t think we can split people into good people or bad people. I think we need to understand where these things come from. And through his brilliant storytelling and a great character Phil [Philip Ridley]’s created, I think he’s exploring the dark side of someone - but also the human side. Liking him is quite essential, to say we can like people in spite of what they do.
Sean: It also makes it harder to watch because you do like this person and what he’s going through, what he ends up doing, just is gut-wrenching. If you didn’t like him you wouldn’t care. Through liking him, we do care and when you get to that final bit in the play you should feel absolutely gutted for him and for his situation.
And that all hangs a lot on Philip Ridley’s script, much more so than it might in an ensemble production. How much was Ridley involved in the show’s direction?
David: He’s not really involved in staging and direction. He and I have worked together quite a few times so there is an understanding of each other’s process. The work has grown together in that way. It’s not that he’s involved in it but I feel we’re quite connected. I get his work and he trusts that I get that.
There’s a lot of ambiguity about where Donny actually is when he’s delivering his monologue - whether it’s in his head, or he’s at a recovery session or actually doing a live show. Where you do you see him as being?
David: There’s two aspects to that really. There’s what we know and what’s up to the audience. We have our own theories as to where he is and what he’s doing. The idea is that because of the way it’s staged, it’s entirely based on there being a contract between Sean and the audience where Sean is absolutely committed to everything he’s doing on stage because all of his actions are created out of his imagination and everything he’s doing physically - it’s really up to the audience what world they conjure. I think some people may believe he’s doing a show, some people may believe he’s in some form of psychiatric session.
Sean: And some people might believe that they’re in his head.
David: For people, I think there is a huge openness to the way people interpret where that journey’s gone and where Donny is in that journey. We have our ideas but the great thing is we don’t need to impose that. The audience has several possibilities, which hopefully makes it more exciting.
Of all those imagined things, I was really interested in the sequin jacket. It’s not the first one we’ve seen one in a Philip Ridley play [one features in Ridley’s debut The Pitchfork Disney as well as the autobiographical novella that opens his first collection of plays]. If Donny was doing a show, I would have thought we would have worn his jacket, but the costume’s obviously incredibly plain.
Where did that choice come from?
David: The sequin jacket is going to be a lot better in people’s imagination than what we would have done. The point is, if we represent that jacket, if we do Donny’s tricks, we do everything, then it’s our limited interpretation upon what this is. Whereas that jacket is so symbolic, can be so many different things…
Sean: It’s changed in my head constantly throughout doing it. Every time I mention it I always see something new.
Do you mean it gets shabbier or shinier, for example? How does it change?
Sean: Yeah, yeah, things like that. When we were rehearsing, we were looking up old fashioned magicians from time gone by and their costume choices, trying to find the most stand-out, ridiculous costumes. We saw quite a few. So I kind of have those in my head every time I’m doing it and it flickers from one to the other for every performance. And that’s the point, why we don’t tell the audience what it is. I describe it but what the audience can imagine is far better than what we can give them.
I saw Dark Vanilla Jungle two years ago and what struck me at the time was that it was from the victim’s perspective. And that felt like quite a liberating thing. Donny Stixx is about a perpetrator, who a lot of people would say alread get too much attention. How would you respond to that potential criticism of the play?
David: I would argue that in Dark Vanilla Jungle and Donny Stixx, both characters are victim and perpetrator, it’s just a different take. The character of Andrea in Dark Vanilla Jungle commits quite a significant and heinous crime. OK, it’s not murder, but it’s pretty off-colour. But she has been a victim in the lead-up to that point. Donny has not been a victim of a crime in the same direct way but he is one of society’s victims. I think we see people like Donny all the time. We see them on X-Factor every week, this new Victorian freak show of these people who are mercilessly attacked for being weird and strange and deluded. People laugh at them. We live in the world of public shame. Donny is a victim of society and I think that’s the connection, that both Donny and Andrea are both lost, really. They are based on lost characters from society.
Sean: It’s the whole play on victim becomes perpetrator. It is about a boy who has been fed all of these things through his childhood and he’s believed them. And why wouldn’t he believe? Everyone’s been ramming them down his throat. And the moment someone snaps him out of that and tells him what’s really going on, it’s devastating for him, devastating. And what he does, that’s how he reacts. We’re not saying that’s how everyone reacts but that’s what drives him to do what he’s done. And I find it really fascinating that that can happen in everyday life. Maybe not to that extreme but there’s some people out there, they’re hanging on a thread, and a lot of it is what they’re being fed. Once someone bursts that bubble, who know’s what’s gonna happen.