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Review: Tender Napalm at The Studio, Holden St Theatres

By Lisa Lanzi

Love has many guises and incarnations.  And sometimes, love and hate endure in a manic cycle of tenderness and destructiveness, such is our human frailty.  Philip Ridley’s Tender Napalm (2011) is a two-hander that oozes passion and conveys playfulness and aggression in varying states of love, lust and conflict between Man and Woman in a non-descript, cluttered and flexible space-time landscape.

This season is the South Australian premiere of Tender Napalm and it is very exciting to have Ridley’s fierce, contemporary and polarizing work aired here.  This is a courageous move by Scuti Productions for their first theatre season and truly deserves an audience.  Scuti production house also have film and television projects in train but aim to be a broad force in our performing arts industry.

Director Rachael Williams is blessed with a cast and production team of great merit.  Her intelligent direction is assured yet refined and definitely brings out the best in her actors in this whirlwind one act work.  As we enter the black-box style Studio, Man and Woman are seated entwined on the floor centre stage softly speaking to each other as they caress, lit only by a warm spotlight.  This intimacy is deliberately confronting as we intrude on the passionate and tender encounter and sets up the atmosphere for the entire play.  The first moments of the text reveal improbable and sexually loaded images as the two speak their lust in poetic but violent terms.  This poetic rendering in the script continues throughout as the imaginative forays into other-worldly existences play out.

As Woman, Carol Lawton is transcendent and by turns playful, bitchy, passionate and amusing.  Her carefully nuanced performance is totally on point in this role and with utmost credibility as the character morphs from seventeen to perhaps forty, but not in any linear sense.  The progression of the play is not a natural one but skips back and forth in time, memory and imagination.  Ms Lawton can be fragile or vicious as the script demands but overall, there is a serenity and delicacy about this character that shines through all the conflict.  There are moments too where bleak tragedy is exposed and this shatters Woman to the point of insanity.

Mark Healy is a powerful force as Man, at times brooding and threatening shifting to loving, playful and even wretched as the breadth of this character unfolds.  His voice has a formidable theatrical resonance carrying well and conveying the emotional range of Man.  At times Healy imbues this character with the predator archetype as he prowls or leaps through the set until subdued by Woman in one of her guises as maiden or crone, or mythical creature, as the script requires.  I was reminded of the male versus female and truth versus illusion rants from Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as well as the more understated gender battles that exist in works of Pinter and Strindberg.  This play’s construct is not placed in a realistic living room though, but within an intimate, imagined microcosm created by the two characters as they negotiate a life and the extremes that it can present.

Both Lawton and Healy with understated East London accents and excellent physicality keep the audience totally engrossed and immersed in the flights of fancy written so colourfully by Ridley.  For eighty minutes we enter a private world which is compelling but at times uncomfortable and we sit firmly in the voyeur role.  Like a tragic accident, you want to look away but the magnetic pull of spectacle is always there.  There is also a charismatic connection between the two actors that draws the whole complex adventure together and keeps the impact on the audience dynamic. 

The coherence of the play is assisted ably by a subtle and beautiful soundscape from Moses Monro and thoughtful lighting design by Bob Weatherly.  The set is an interesting construct by Rachael Williams that reflects both the inner chaos of Man and Woman and a complex relationship, then deftly represents elements of the imaginative worlds they ‘travel’ to.  The script is intense and verbose with both characters on stage the entire time and rarely silent.  The words and lines have a distinct rhythm and cadence as the narrative slips in and out of various colourful realities, painful memories and elegiac imagery.

Tender Napalm is a work that defies explanation and classification but leaves a viewer with many powerful images and thought-provoking ideas.  It is, however, a riveting contemporary piece of theatre that should definitely be seen and discussed if you have any interest in or passion for the performing arts.

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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