The title of Philip Ridley’s first new play for three years perfectly encapsulates its subject. Tender Napalm outlines a love affair with a dangerous edge. This condensed 75-minute two-hander is a lyrical yet brutal exploration of the intense emotions which mark the relationship between an unnamed Man and Woman: an archetypal battle of the sexes, with each partner equally dependent on the other for their happiness.
As usual with Ridley, the play also mixes fantasy and reality, showing the therapeutic value of storytelling in expressing our darkest desires and fears. Following on from their excellent touring production last year of Moonfleece, one of Ridley’s plays for young people, David Mercatali’s stripped-down traverse staging for supporting wall focuses tightly on the gladiatorial protagonists, who it seems can’t live with or without each other. With just two chairs for props, the couple begin sitting at a distance opposite each other, but soon get up and move closer as they encircle, feint, embrace and grapple, enacting their wild flights of fancy.
Even when the fantasies are shocking in their graphic violence there is an undertow of eroticism and humour in their exchanges, clearly a game in which they mutually enjoy participating, riffing off each other’s ideas as only those who are intimate can do. Their epic fight for supremacy over a desert island, complete with slaughter of a sea serpent, abduction by aliens and transformation into an octopus, is a tour de force of lurid imagination. Counterpointing this are memories of their first romantic meeting at a grand country-house party, which also provide factual reference points for their fictions, and underline the sense of melancholic bereavement at the play’s heart.
There is real chemistry in the acting. Jack Gordon (who appeared in Ridley’s recent film Heartless) puts in a dynamic performance as the male half of the equation, revelling in boys’ own adventures of exploration and conquest, while the more sensuous Vinette Robinson provides the female perspective, giving as good as she gets with biting wit. The compassionate concern with which the pair look at each other belies the belligerence of their words, with a close bond between them.
Tender Napalm shows Ridley at his most poetic, concocting a fractured, shimmering sequence of video-game-style images to illuminate the primal feelings between a man and a woman struggling together in love.