In and out. In and out. A pulse. Like sex, like breath. A man and a woman sit facing each other, physically distant but intensely connected, with hunger in their eyes. They taunt each other, tease each other, joust and spar. Their weapons are words: sexual, charged, violent yet also tender. They describe fantastical happenings, island adventures, bedroom explosions, fractured and layered, wild and exuberant but never entirely untethered from reality.
Philip Ridley’s play takes the form of a power struggle, a bloody battle for control on a remote desert island populated by armies of monkeys and the occasional dolphin-shaped dildo. The pair become warriors, a pair of gladiators in jeans and white vests, their imaginings getting ever more lurid and glorious: she becomes a multi-tentacled thing; he gets whisked off by aliens.
In contrast to this verbal battle royale, Ridley depicts the couple’s first tentative meeting at a country-house party, a world tinged with loss and pain, an aching place. He roots their fantasy landscape in the real, anchoring their passion in familiar things. They find their escape in one another. Catharsis comes through the sharing of stories. The bond between them is a constant. No matter how aggressive their language, how violent their fantasies (with their lubricated grenades, with their copper wire and garden shears) there is a connection, an abiding affection, a mutual sense of tenderness and concern.
David Mercatali’s stripped-down duet is kinetic and poetic in equal measure. Both Tom Byam Shaw and Lara Rossi give performances of immense energy. Shaw sprints backwards and forwards across the wide, white space of the stage, slaughtering imaginary serpents, thrusting and diving until the sweat is pouring off him. It pools in the hollow of his collarbone, pearls in his hair, drips from the tips of his beard until he collapses to the floor, red-cheeked and breathless: utterly spent. Rossi’s performance is less full-throttle in the physical sense but no less charismatic. She stalks and struts, shimmers, roars.
The two-hander returns to Southwark Playhouse cresting a wave of recent Ridley productions, including the premiere of his latest play Shivered at the same venue and an astonishing revival of the brutal, brilliant Mercury Fur which earned a deserved transfer to the Trafalgar Studios. This is the second cast to star in Mercatali’s production and he plays to the performers’ individual strengths, intensifying the chemistry between them. The stage is bare except for two chairs at opposite ends of the room and two bottles of water. It’s part combat arena (and, even though the dimensions are completely different, in this regard it brings to mind the bespoke playing space for Mike Bartlett’s Cock), part blank canvas, part virtual landscape.
Though the couple circle each other constantly, springing off one another, colliding and clashing as they negotiate the traverse stage, Mercatali only allows them to come together at the end – to wrap themselves in each other’s heat, to sink into each other’s skin, to lose themselves completely – before they pull apart and the circle begins again.
Read the Exeunt interview with Philip Ridley.