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.