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.

Gold trailer
Show Hide image

From Loving to Gold, the films gripped by homebuilding in America

In all three films, capitalism, landowning and homemaking are inexorably linked.

If you’ve been to the movies in the last couple of weeks, you might have seen a film set in a Southern US state. In it, a man drives out into the countryside, and finds a square of untouched land. Maybe he brings his wife with him. He stands on the land and imagines a future in which he has built his own tiny empire on this patch of earth.

Gold, Loving and The Founder, all released in the UK in the last fortnight, are all twentieth century-set films that touch on ideas of the American Dream, and all contain variations of this scene.

Loving would be the story of a typical all-American couple living out their white picket fence dreams, if it weren’t for the regressive laws that invalidate their interracial marriage and see them banned from their home state.

We first catch a glimpse of the domestic life they long for when Richard Loving drives his girlfriend, Mildred, out into a field near where she grew up. “Whatcha think?” he asks her. “Do you like it?”

“You mean this field?” she replies. “This field not a mile from my house that I’ve been knowin’ all my life?”

“I want to put the kitchen right back here,” he says, before beginning to explain. “I bought it. This whole acre. I’m gonna build you a house right here. Our house.” The violins swell suggestively, and Richard proposes.

The scene functions as a way to both paint a picture of the idyllic life that Mildred and Richard were well on track to attain: only a few scenes later we’re abruptly reminded that the deception of the American Dream, perhaps particularly in this period, is that it’s open to all, “regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”.

In Gold, Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) begins to make his fortune when he builds a successful gold mine in Indonesia. Shortly after his discovery, he drives his girlfriend Kay into a field at Maggie’s Creek.

She steps out of the car with her hands over her eyes. When she opens them, Kenny announces, “It’s gonna be our place, away from it all, above it all, just like we always wanted. You like it?”

When she breathlessly says she does, he begins planning: “Ok, look. The house, right here, alright? The kitchen, facing there, the great room over here, two fireplaces…”

“Can we afford this?” Kay asks.

“Almost, baby, almost,” Kenny says. “We’re almost there. Now look at this, a couple of bedrooms on this end, couple on that end. Look at this playground for the kids! How many kids do you wanna have?”

Kenny’s financial success working the land in Indonesia and the domestic bliss he could achieve building his own home back in the States are intrinsinctly linked in one upward movement, dreams achieved through persistance, self-belief and the ability to visualise a perfect future.

In The Founder, we veer slightly from these familial images. We see the McDonald brothers lovingly sketch out the floor plans for their fast food restaurants over and over again with chalk on tennis courts.

“What if the fryer goes here?” they mutter, trying to find the perfect organisation of stations to maximise productivity and efficiency. Meanwhile, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), the man whose vision will ultimately eclipse theirs, drives out to a patch of land and grasps the earth in his hand, whispering to it.

We’ve seen tropes like this before: take the abandoned home trope, for example. In films like It’s A Wonderful LifeThe Notebook and Up, male protagonists adopt abandoned buildings their wives and girlfriends have romanticised in some way, and with physical, rather than financial, effort, transform these crumbling structures into a family house. There’s an idealistic quality to these scenes that suggest any American can stumble across the perfect home and move in, and present a communal attitude to landowning like something out of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”.

But the scenes in these recent three films suggest something rather different - capitalism, landowning and homemaking are inexorably linked. The success of Richard’s construction business and mechanic work allows him to buy the land where he can build Mildred’s home, while Kenny’s goldmine enables him to purchase a shiny new estate for Kay. Ray’s emotional connection with the ground comes after he realises that he’s “not in the fast food business,” he’s “in the real estate business”. The McDonald brothers put the love, care and attention into the floorplans of their restaurants usually reserved for domestic homebuilding. There are tonal and contextual differences in these scenes, but they all see familial and commercial spheres merge over floorplans. 

But these movies also suggest that there is a lie inherent in the idea that rampant capitalism can lead to domestic bliss. Mildred and Richard are told that the life they have built together means nothing by a Virgina courtroom. Kay and Kenny’s relationship breaks down as his financial success becomes more and more impossible. And as for the McDonald brothers? Both they, and Kenny in Gold, must later face the gut-churning realisation that as their businesses are built on land owned by somebody else, they can be taken away from them, with little to no financial compensation.

There’s a nostalgia to these films – in the blissful life Richard and Loving begin to glimpse towards the end of Loving, after their court case has been won; in the pioneering, take-life-by-the-horns spirit of Kenny Wells and Ray Kroc that secures them their fortunes.

But the Woody Guthrie spirit of “This Land is our Land” has changed its meaning over time: written while Guthrie was paying rent to Donald Trump’s father, it’s now been adopted by protesters at anti-Trump marches. And all these films also cast a retrospectively sceptical eye over the social and economic contexts in which their stories are set.

In an America helmed by the ultimate real estate capitalist with his own regressive views, there is an eerily well-timed hint of cynicism at play. The ideals of the American Dream – that you can prosper regardless of your heritage or background if you just work hard – are fragile. And you can be locked out of your home, however hard you worked in building it. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.