Thursday, April 19, 2018

Tender Napalm - dark, unsettling, ambiguous but thought-provoking dystopia (Lyric Theatre until Saturday 21 April)

Philip Ridley’s 2011 play Tender Napalm drops the audience into an unnamed couple’s disturbing relationship. Actors Emer McDaid and Gavin Peden walk onto a stage that’s naked except for 10 white stools and a clothes rail. As Woman and Man they begin a verbal duel, shooting elaborate poetic insults at each other based around parts of the other’s body. The language and imagery quickly turns violent, physically and at times sexually.

Soon the parrying switches to another game. The aloof couple are marooned on a desert island. Letting their imaginations roam free they make up stories that revolve around the destruction of the other. Man tells a superhero tale of fighting a sea serpent which is as tall as three double decker buses. Woman imagines armies of little monkeys who help lock her Man in a cave. Over 100 minutes, bombs, unicorns and even UFOs are added to the presumed make-believe universe.

The pair’s games have rules. Each new chapter in the story cannot contradict previous canon. Ever more elaborate escapes are invented to recover from near fatal cliff hangers. Weaved into this fantasy is what could be the couple’s origin story. The truth is never clear. Ridley presents the dialogue and leaves those listening to rationalise what they are hearing. There are some clues that hint at traumatic events in their childhood, mental illness or perhaps violent loss as a couple.

Despite the intimate language, there is little intimacy between the couple, other than the echo of long gone better times. We’re watching an ex-couple, two people who have moved beyond tenderness to inhabit a world where they go round in circles dropping napalm on each other. The word ‘naked’ is so often repeated in the script that it becomes a Chekhov's gun that fails to be fired: what might be an almost deliberate shying away from anything sensual adds mystery to the narrative. (To be fair, I think I saw a whole year’s worth of – mostly male – nudity in the Lyric’s Naughton Studio in February alone.)

While the plot is ambiguous and disquieting, the quality of the acting cannot be questioned. The young pair are in total control of their unusual situation. Gavin Peden leaps around the stools like a caped crusader and petulantly interrupts Woman’s stories. He combines Man’s bouncy boyish nature with an aggressive streak while Emer McDaid is less harsh as Woman, calm and assertive with just a hint of menace (particularly when she holds the garden shears) right up until the point her character caves in. Director Breman Rajkumar has created an unfussy choreography that makes good use of the empty space and invites the audience into some of the scenes.
Contre un bon repas chaud / Nous prenait une toile / Nous récitions des vers / Groupés autour du poêle / En oubliant l'hiver

Other than a blast of the rather apt La Bohème by Charles Aznavour, the only sound effects are the metallic noise of white stools being moved or knocked over. The challenge for the cast of Tender Napalm is to make people believe that the relationship was once viable despite the nasty rhetoric and to keep the paying public hooked while the clues are slowly laid out on the bare stage.

When the actors change costumes at one point and travel back in time they both look and sound noticeable younger. Two lesser actors might have struggle with the stripped back set or sound, but McDaid and Peden deliver performances that are rich and magnetic. While I’m not sure any two people leaving the theatre will agree on what story was being told, In the Moment Productions have put on a thought-provoking and unsettling piece of dystopian drama.

Tender Napalm continues at the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 21 April.

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