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.