Tender Napalm, the latest production for La Boite Theatre, has attracted both rave reviews and scathing criticism from local theatre critics.
After attending a performance last night, I find myself walking a middle ground between these extremes, with some aspects of the production captivating me and others leaving me a little cold.
Tender Napalm is a 2011 play from British writer and artist Philip Ridley. Renowned for producing controversial (and award-winning) works, Ridley is known for his confrontational approach to often explosive subjects, and this show is no exception.
As we file into the theatre, the two performers (Ellen Bailey and Kurt Phelan) are already warming up by the side of a large wooden stage that features only two black chairs and a couple of water bottles. Positioned at opposite ends of the space, they lunge and swing their arms, exhaling loudly as if preparing for a boxing match or an athletics meet -- which, in a sense, they are.
Once the audience is seated, the duo takes to the stage, walking slowly away from each other before turning and launching into what will be 80 minutes of high-octane talk and physical theatre.
The most controversial sections of the play come early, as the couple traverses sexually explict and often violent terrain in the long monologues that form the bulk of the show. From here we move on to apparently fantastical stories of unicorns and sea serpents, mixed with nightmarish tales of tsunamis and nostalgic stories of first love.
By play's end, this apparently random collection of speeches makes sense, as the history and trauma of the couple's relationship gradually falls into place.
This is a very talky play, which can be a dangerous thing. I wasn't particularly engaged by its early sections, and didn't find great beauty in Ridley's writing, though many others have. Also, as my companion remarked, the 'shocking' and sexually explicit content often seemed to be trying too hard for not a lot of reward -- always a risk when you venture into this sort of territory.
I also found Ridley's narrative somewhat predictable and even, dare I say it, cliched in places. And I found the play's themes and tone confused -- for me, sexual obsession and parental loss are odd bedfellows, while broad humour often undermines what should be desolation (though others have praised these juxtapositions as complexity).
But -- and it's a big but -- as a piece of physical theatre, I thought Tender Napalm delivered, and its physicality leant an energy to the script that kept me listening and engaged for the great majority of the performance.
Choreographer Garry Stewart and director David Berthold have carefully plotted the performers' movements on and off the stage to lend greater depth to the script, and to give the audience a show that is as much about sweat and the carnal as it is about any cerebral processes.
Phelan and Bailey execute their moves faultlessly, tumbling and stretching across the stage, leaping up the sides of the theatre, and climbing a long wall that runs behind the stage (which I would have liked to see used more).
Their delivery of often difficult dialogue is also strong, and Phelan, in particular, generates genuine sexual tension. By the play's final stages, we get a sense of the performers as a couple, not just as adversaries, which lends some welcome nuance to the piece.
As we stood up to leave at the end of the show, I heard a young man behind me remark to his friends, 'I'm really not sure what I thought of that.'
Perhaps that's a good summary of Tender Napalm -- it's not straightforward, it embraces both successful and less successful aspects, and it requires some hard work on the part of the audience.
While I have my reservations about Ridley's script, I think this production is definitely worth seeing.