'Tender Napalm' review or 'No man is an island.'

'Tender Napalm', Philip Ridley
Southwark Playhouse Theatre, Friday 22nd April 2011
Written for Culture Wars

Vinette Robinson and Jack Gordon as 'Woman' and 'Man'. Photo Credit: Camilla Greenwell

Philip Ridley's 'Tender Napalm', his first new play in three years, is a bit like Pinter's 'Betrayal' dipped in acid and set alight. There are similarities: Ridley's play looks at a romance in reverse, beginning with a darkly disintegrating relationship and closing with the couple's first encounter. The final images are near-identical too, concluding as this play (almost) does with the Man and Woman's first dance. But whereas Pinter's play was anchored in reality, Ridley's flies off into the deepest realms of fantasy. It is about where love takes us; how its embrace traps and liberates lovers, language and imagination.

'Tender Napalm' is a play of reversals in the deepest sense. It is not only the chronology that is flipped on its head – language is manipulated or inverted in curious ways. Seduction becomes a cruel and often selfish process. All the typical romantic symbols are given spikes – we get the thorns but no rose. So, instead of kissing each other, the lovers imagine placing a bullet between 'those rosebud lips'. Instead of waxing lyrical about the eyes and soul contained within, the Woman imagines spooning out the Man's eye sockets. And, instead of wooing his lady with delicate poetry, the Man fantasizes about shoving a grenade deep inside her. There is fire and yearning behind these images and, in some ways, their dirt and danger make these 'romantic' professions of love shine stronger still.

Language is the lover's only weapon and, whoever uses it to most exhilarating effect, comes out on top. The two imagine themselves on a stranded island and, alternately, run away with their own adventures. In pitching his two characters in a lyrical love match, Ridley pushes his imagination to exceptional heights. The Woman (Vinette Robinson) imagines herself as Queen of the jungle, waited on by monkeys proffering mangos and nectar. The Man (Jack Gordon), not to be outdone, recounts his breathless pursuit of a sprawling serpent. Gordon leaps head first into these romantic 'trips' and his innocent energy does a good job of grounding Ridley's quixotic imaginings. It helps that Ridley's phrases, although exotic and soaring, are so convincingly coined as to make them almost believable: 'It's like digging a hole in a sky of meat.'

Gordon and Robinson's pulsing sexual energy provides a palpable grounding for this deeply metaphorical piece. Their love might take them to crazy places but it is always there, underneath, simmering and threatening. Their verbal sparring works brilliantly and always feels playful, despite the sharp images sliding off their tongues. Both retain a certain warm sense of humour that prevents this piece from becoming too tied up in its own dark imaginings.

Director David Mercatali coaxes a fierce rhythm from his actors and the words fly back and forth, like ping pong balls. The only shortcoming is in the transition between the wild adventures, played out in the stranded island that is their relationship, and the more grounded sections from the past. Frequently, an awesome riff will be suddenly curtailed: 'I remember when I was 18.' A memory from the couple's joint past follows, touching on the genesis of their relationship. These moments are structurally important and gain increasing significance but the contrast in energy between the two segments is too pronounced. The softer reminisces don't stand a chance against the surging, fantastical flourishes.

Yet, these moments of unembellished reflection do gain currency. When we finally reach the lovers' first meeting, as they dance to music we cannot hear, we see the beginnings of their transcendent adventure. They might be dancing to their own music, they might be separate from everyone else's reality – but they will also see and hear things of unmatched beauty, created by and accessible to them alone.


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