Tender Napalm

Philip Ridley
Company Of Sirens, Theatr Iolo, Chapter
Chapter, Cardiff
to

Tender Napalm is the second of two plays by Philip Ridley being given their Welsh première by Company Of Sirens. Following on from Mercury Fur, it is another disturbing piece, although in this case, the violence remains purely fantastical.

As we enter the arena, a couple, dressed vaguely in rags, are already in place, wandering around Bethany Seddon’s spare set, comprised of two chairs, with the playing space bounded by white curtains. The unnamed woman sings a song whose tenderness, it quickly transpires, is uncharacteristic.

Tender Napalm starts out as a savagely parodic take on the games which couples play in the private universes which they create for themselves. The man and woman talk about visiting extreme brutality, sexual and otherwise, on one another—the title, one assumes, refers to the nature of language itself.

The couple visualise themselves as living on a desert island populated by monkeys which may or may not be at their command; about slaying huge sea-monsters; about being visited by UFOs filled with war-like aliens. The outside world seems to exist only in an apparently shared past. A past which, it is poignantly hinted, is touched by tragedy.

This is that most testing of theatrical forms for all concerned—a play consisting of one long, continuous act, playing out in what seems like real time. Matthew Bulgo and Jannah Warlow handle Ridley’s profane poeticism with skill, but allow us to see that beneath the cruel playfulness, there is pain.

Director Chris Durnall ensures that the pace doesn’t flag over the eighty or so minutes, and that the verbosity is matched by physicality. Jane Lalljee’s lighting effects and Dan Lawrence’s subtle sound design ensure that the many changes of mood are sympathetically conyeyed, as the verbal sparring gives way to something more profound.

Man and Woman semi-seriously appear to threaten one another with breathtaking ultra-violence. For all the crude abandon of their exchanges, however, it becomes clear that there is much which must remain unsaid.

Initially, the theme of Tender Napalm seems to be the universality of irrationality within relationships. Its true focus, however (as with a previous Company Of Sirens Welsh première—Anthony Neilson’s Stitching), turns out to be grief, loss and divine injustice, and our strategies, whether healthy or unhealthy, for coping with them.

This is a challenging play, although not a forbidding one. This bracingly entertaining production succeeds in foregrounding its vicious humour, whilst not permitting its arguably sensationalist take on the subject matter to blind us to the fact that uncomfortable emotional depths are being plumbed.

Othniel Smith