Trapped by words

In Philip Ridley's new play, the actors get lost in language.

A man and a woman sit facing each other at opposite ends of a transverse stage. As the audience members line this runway, we are forced to choose one or the other to observe: already in David Mercatali's staging there is a sense of sides, and of opposition.

And yet Philip Ridley's Tender Napalm, premiering at Southwark Playhouse, is a love story. The oxymoronic title exactly captures the mood of skirmish mingled with solicitousness. The pair (Jack Gordon and Vinette Robinson), who are not given names, fantasise for 80 minutes about wreaking havoc on each others' bodies: violent subtraction, on her part (castration, eye gouging), violent addition on his (bullets in the mouth, grenades up the vagina). This is sex as mutual mutilation.

In this consensual make-believe, they dare each other to greater heights, or depths. The two concoct wild narratives that cast each other in a mythic light, as sole survivors on an island and competitors for its domination. At times, he's Perseus slaying the serpent, or a bound Prometheus; she's got the "marine DNA" of Neptune. They battle for supremacy in this dystopian Eden with a chorus of monkeys, crocodiles, unicorns, conjured at will. There is an element, as in the conceits in metaphysical poetry, of building whole worlds out of one's beloved. One thinks of Donne's elegy "To His Mistress Going to Bed": "O, my America, my Newfoundland".

In this case, the language was not quite the transcendent poetry that might have been hoped for. Images seemed a little arch, a little forced, as in: "your tongue is so furry, I could perm it". At times an altogether more prosaic narrative intrudes, of a life in Spitalfields, of garden centres on the Dagenham Road, and a party where they first met. It's in the garden at this party, towards the end of the show, where we discover the statuary and the quotidian objects (like crocodile cufflinks) that have inspired the dream-like repetition of monsters and animals in earlier stories.

They mention a child, which they perhaps had together, and lost. Certainly the storytelling would seem to serve as an escape, a fabulous distraction from painful truths, and they will each cast a storyline to rescue the other if they are becoming too enmired in one narrative. In this, the show felt like an extended improvisational exercise, with scenarios proffered, taken up and discarded: yarn spinning as a form of escapology.

As much as words provide these characters with alternative realities and possibilities, they also entrap. The play starts and ends with the same phrases: this pair is caught in an infinite loop. To some extent all these words entrap the actors, too. There is a great deal of narrative, which can cage and constrain the performance even as it attempts to free it up. Mercatali injects some wild energy, but much of it feels unfocused. There is no doubting Gordon's physical commitment: ten minutes in and he is marinating in his own sweat, but this causes its own anxieties for the audience, as he shakes saltwater like a wet dog at the front row, and leaves Vinette Robinson's jeans sticky and damp after bearing her on his shoulders.

That said, one hour and 20 minutes with just two performers and a couple of chairs is no easy feat. The sheer vibrancy of the actors turns the stage into a buzzing magnetic field in which they appear to be locked in a bind of attraction and repulsion. Particularly in the "tender" part of the equation, the connection between the two is palpable and powerful.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump