Company Of Sirens, Theatr Iolo, Chapter
From 29 May 2014 to 31 May 2014
Review by Othniel Smith
Credit: Company Of Sirens
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.
Company of Sirens, Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff,
April 22 - 26
Writer: Philip Ridley
Director: Chris Durnall
Company of Sirens’ latest production offers up a superb, breathless vision of
Philip Ridley’s powerful two-hander, Tender Napalm, in this Welsh premiere of
the acclaimed play.
Set amidst a landscape of desolation, a man and woman pick at the bones of
their starving relationship in a place without name or time. Matthew Bulgo and
Jannah Warlow deliver flawless performances in the two leads, delivering the
brutal poetry of the language with childish aplomb. The simplicity of the set,
which comprises of two chairs, physically liberates the actors and allows the
dialogue to ring.
In his opening night discussion on the play, Ridley spoke of the script
as a foray into the violent language of love – an exploration of its extremes,
where, “I could squeeze a bullet between those lips,” becomes something
akin to the everyday language of broken hearts and love tearing us apart.
This is an unapologetic and unflinching portrayal of love’s brutality. Poetry
literally runs through the piece. As the sea ebbs and flows through various
fantastical wreckages, the characters are locked in a dance of violent fantasy
and memory, where the imaginary struggles for dominance and threatens to
drown the real reason for their casting adrift – the death of their child.
Initially, the notion of the child seems as unreal as any of their flights
of fancy – a tsunami, a serpent, an alien abduction, a giant octopus. But
Ridley reels us in to the tangible sorrow of their waking dreams and nods at
their place in our own world, sometime, somewhere. The final sequence,
beautifully lit and rooted in memory, is both painfully tender and crushing.
This is important theatre and feels like it. See it!
Reviewed by Tracey Rhys
Tender Napalm by Philip Ridley
Company of Sirens (dir. Chris Durnall)
Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff
This Welsh premiere of Philip Ridley’s ‘Tender Napalm’ by Company of Sirens charts the intense but sometimes darkly comic journey of two lovers coming to terms with a tragic event.
Both roles are extremely challenging, with no hiding place for the actors. Onstage for the whole play on a stripped-down set, they are constantly on the move, constantly surprising and outdoing each other with outlandish, brutal and increasingly wild fantasies and memories. With the play completely reliant on their words and movement throughout, Matthew Bulgo and Jannah Warlow give powerful performances, completely inhabiting their unnamed characters.
There is an enjoyable playfulness in watching each lover’s inventive reaction to the other’s latest lurid fantasy, either topping it with a more extreme fantasy or else comically undercutting and undermining it. This verbal and physical contest, with its sweeping to and fro of poetic imagery, forms the structure of the play. But beneath these competing fantasies, other themes emerge as we begin to sense the lovers’ feelings of loss, grief and blame.
In the Q and A session following the first-night performance, Philip Ridley explained his desire to shine a light on the paradoxically violent language of love, in much-used romantic phrases such as ‘you tore me apart’, ‘you broke my heart’, etc. Ridley explores the stark violence of this language by replacing well-worn phrases with images of his own, such as pushing a bullet delicately between a lover’s lips.
As the play progresses, a striking transformation of the mood casts a new light on the storm we have witnessed up to that point.
The simplicity of set and plot create a feeling of unconstrained freedom, allowing the characters to transport the audience to whatever bizarre world they can invoke through words and movement. This striking production is expertly directed by Chris Durnall, with a keen sense of the timing and rhythms of Ridley’s play.