Tender Napalm

Tender Napalm
By Philip Ridley. Scuti Productions. The Studio, Holden Street Theatres, Adelaide. 19-29 June 2019

A woman and a man sit on the stage, their arms and legs entwined, their faces just inches apart. They talk quietly, lovingly – tenderly. A hand brushes away hair from a face; they almost kiss.

This is the scene we face as we walk into the well-lit auditorium, soft music providing a cushion to our inevitable murmurs of conversation when we take our seats. Then the house lights fade; the stories begin.

The tenderness quickly gives way to a violent eroticism: tools of destruction pushed into the intimacy of sex. There are poetic stories of desire, of passion and aggression, each story more imaginative: the simpler descriptions of lips, dripping with first love, give way to boys-own-adventure tales of battling serpents and UFOs – and each other.

With its non-linear chronology, we’re not immediately sure where we are in this deliriously passionate relationship, and it’s only later that we feel the strands of the story pull together, the fantastic fiction a mad mythology of fact. The reality of the man and that of the woman – and often, not the same truth.

Philip Ridley’s manic two-hander is breathless in the intimate space of this theatre: its unflinching and confronting language is shocking, yet not gratuitous. Carol Lawton and Mark Healy play the couple in love, in hate, in mourning, taking us on a journey through a broad range of emotions in this fiery relationship. The tender is lip-trembling, heartbreaking; the napalm is vicious and unforgiving – but only in the moment. This is a co-dependency where these two cannot bear the thought of not being with the other, and just when you feel the relationship will explode, there’s understanding and encouragement from one to the other. They push one another to the edge, but at the last second, coax them – drag them – back to the safety of together.

Healy plays the heroic adventurer with gusto, the warmonger with frightening aggression, the imprisoned with vulnerability. Lawton is both real and romantic, compassionate and cruel: she can cut through poetic returns from Healy and words dripping with contempt and disgust. There’s talk of penetration and castration and it continually crosses the line between love and hate.

Director Rachael Williams has choreographed a magnificent duet between these two, who fill the stage for the entire eighty minutes – the set is a turmoil of furniture, complementing the central theme of love as if stranded on a desert island, the lovers the only two people in the world.

The lighting design by Bob Weatherly is clever, using washes of warm light in the calmer moments; bold coloured spots hidden within the set to emphasise the imaginations of the couple. There’s a cinematic soundscape crafted by Moses Monro, which does an excellent job of steering the scene and its tempo.

It’s not always clear what these imaginative stories are really about – there are themes of lost fathers, of death and there’s a tragedy here that is indicated but not explained, a jolt that drove these two into their alternative realities. The strength in Ridley’s writing is that there is so much more in what’s left unsaid.

This is a brave piece of theatre and the courageous Williams is a good navigator through the swell and breaks of the stories, piloting the audience to familiarities we can hold onto, even when all around is confusing in the moment.

No less vital is the pair of Lawton and Healy, with their genuine chemistry, who have the exceptional ability to stimulate our feelings and thoughts in so many different directions, making us consider our own islands, and who we’re stranded with.

Mark Wickett

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