Just last week Lyn Gardner, the Guardian’s famed and feared theatre critic asked “why today’s critics no longer write about acting, or at least not with any of the zest and descriptive power of their predecessors….The lack of attention paid to acting is a loss.”
Upon viewing, Tender Napalm seemed the perfect piece upon which to exorcise this critique of the critics. Witnessing Vinette Robinson and Jack Gordon’s approach these high-context characters felt as if there were needless excesses and a lack of the essentials. Is love really based on winning verbal duels? Their performances failed to move me towards anywhere meaningful other than the door.
This world premiere of Philip Ridley’s Tender Napalm at the Southwark Playhouse marks the first new play in three years from the award-winning playwright. This uninterrupted 80 minute piece begins with Man and Woman entering in a flurry of high energy motion and then settling into chairs at opposite ends of the stage. “Your mouth … it’s such a wet thing. I could squeeze a bullet between those lips.” There they both physically and metaphorically remain, at opposite ends of the spectrum, springing back and forth between sexual confrontation and a distant aloofness all via a seemingly never ending linguistic duel.
In the game of competing egos, both Man and Woman use super-heroes from comics, sci-fi ideas, ancient legends and fairy tales as places in which to explore the language of love and to contest rival interpretations of past events. The monologue heavy dialogue follows the basic principle of improvisation – never refuse an idea or image – and so take each other’s suggestions, however interruptive. Images of snakes, serpents, unicorns, monkeys, kings, queens and blood proliferate. There are suggestions of a violent world beyond our immediate experience, Ridley’s script is in constant flux as it examines the multiplicity of this thing we call love. Delving into these minds, I was struck instead by the lack of inventiveness. If this is indeed a dream world, then why not make us dream dizzying heights and catastrophic lows, rather than this flat line comic strip. They rarely venture into this fantasy world together as lover’s so often do, but instead remain in continual combat.
Gordon’s Man while dynamic, lacks emotional depth, his extensive physical work feels messy – riding a unicorn with the same movements upon which he directs a space ship. Robinson’s Woman lacks basic female qualities that could have shifted this piece into a realm of real depth. She maintains the same caustic lack of sympathy of any hint of warmth that she displayed as the Sergeant in the BBC’s recent Sherlock Holmes. Robinson’s eagerness to coldly contradict Gordon’s fiery, fist pumping Man without any tangible or remorse render her character one-dimensional.
Does an exploration of sexual love really need to involve pushing bullets and grenades into one’s orifices? It appears a rather self-destructive relationship that Ridley has created. This couple’s lack of compassion led me to stop caring. Rather dance around the issue, why not get to the heart of the matter. What good is story telling if it fails to move, to inspire, to educate, to enrapture the audience? I very much saw the Napalm, but where was any sincere Tenderness? Despite the lack of a conclusion, I left the theatre, glad that the production itself had concluded.
Most opera aficionados would not think Terry Gilliam’s name to be synonymous with the form and yet his first foray in opera depicts the director, made famous for directing film and providing the animation in Monty Pythons Flying Circus, making a seamless transition.
He decided to adapt Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust and made the daring decision to set it during the emergence of the Nazi party in Germany.
Before the curtains are raised, Mephisto or the more commonly used Satan enters with his shadowy minions and takes his seat to the side of the stage where he awaits the moment to pounce on the increasingly vulnerable Faust. His minions cavort around the stage like devilish ballerinas, moving around with their twisted and contorted limbs. This immediately sets the precedent that the devil will be an active puppeteer and the insidious cause of the tragedy that is to follow.
For those who don’t know the narrative, it tells the tale of Faust, a man disenchanted with his life and contemplating suicide. He is visited by Mephisto who lures him into a world of dangerous temptation by offering him fulfillment of his innermost desires to which the parochial Faust excitedly accepts. His journey then becomes increasingly more fraught as Mephisto reduces Faust to a mere puppet, casting him into increasingly ominous scenarios where swastikas are ubiquitous and the pernicious far-right ideology is beginning to take effect.
Gilliam is perhaps best known for his capacity to harness his tremendous imagination and create a sumptuous feast of visual stimulation with Brazil and Twelve Monkeys being two particularly apt examples. He has not let his reputation down where each backdrop is rich in detail and bustling with activity. He also integrates the use of projections, tragically illustrating soldiers in combat being a particularly poignant example.
Mephisto is masterfully played by Christopher Purves; dressed immaculately, oozing charm and insouciance with a suitably powerful voice, seducing all those who cross his path. Pater Hoare’s Faust is also brilliantly played, with a shock of hair, looking every inch the capricious eccentric he purports to be.
I liked the pace of the piece where the audience are gradually reminded of the ominous milieu we are observing and the evil that is in motion. The growing evil however is slowly unravelled as Mephisto manipulates each situation to bring Faust closer and closer to relinquishing his soul. The Nazi ideology turns into acts of extreme and violent prejudice as the benign glow of the early scenes are replaced by the malevolent dark as a feeling of foreboding and an inevitability of tragedy begins to emerge.
This was truly a wonderful piece of opera from a director who might just have found his calling.