Southwark Playhouse, London SE1
Opened 22 April, 2011

Philip Ridley’s plays are consistently fascinated by the power of stories, the freedom and also the control they offer. Quite often (as in Moonfleece, revived last year by the production/direction team now behind Ridley’s first première in three years), his dramas involve characters competing for literal command of the narrative of their own and each other’s lives. Tender Napalm may be the purest example to date of this strain of his writing, and also of a luxuriance in the sensuousness of language, even when the images it evokes may be violent or distasteful.

The 80-minute piece begins with its two characters, Man and Woman (oh, well), sitting on chairs at opposite ends of the traverse stage running between the audience banks, rhapsodising about each other: “Your mouth”, “your eyes”, and thence to more intimate regions. These passages tend more towards monologue-with-interspersed-remarks than dialogue as such; however, as matters grow more animated, physically as well as imagistically, they begin trading fantasy tales of their exploits on and around the desert island on which they are apparently marooned together. It often feels like a brash, exuberant mash-up of Waiting For GodotWho’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, Sarah Kane’s Crave and The Blue Lagoon. However, the couple’s fabulistic tussling is not hostile; almost invariably they obey the basic principle of improvisation, which is never to refuse an idea or image – instead they take each other’s suggestions and modulate them to their own ends. They are lovers in the deepest, most intimate way.

Periodically, these wild yarns are interrupted by a passage of what appears to be real-world memory: Woman’s invitation to a party which sounds in itself like fantasy but gradually resolves itself into the one thrown by Man’s family for his sister’s birthday and as a farewell for his dying father. In this world, the two meet for what is evidently the first time. Fantastical images from their “earlier” tales are recapitulated in more realistic forms. Nothing resembling an explanation is offered, but my interpretation is that this initial encounter is so seismic for them that their spirits, subconscious, whatever, soar together in shared fantasy beneath or behind the words we now hear. It is a testimony to the beauty that is Shakespeare’s “marriage of true minds”, and presented with sensitivity and, of course, power by director David Mercatali and actors Jack Gordon and Vinette Robinson.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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