Review: Tender Napalm – La Boite Theatre Company at The Roundhouse

What to say – what further words to add to the experience that is Tender Napalm by Philip Ridley, directed by David Berthold, choreographed by Garry Stewart and currently playing as part of the Brisbane Festival?

The built-in shock factor in this extraordinary piece of cerebral and visceral theatre lies in the words and in the way they are re-imagined and configured in tandem with the body at rest and in extraordinary motion. Sounds and energies are articulated, spun and reshaped to create the most wonderful and terrifying stories, the kind that are the stuff of a child’s daydreams and nightmares.

A reading reveals Ridley’s shocking poetical fantasies and that, in itself, is a rich experience. His writing for young people is evident in the text not just in his monsters and monkeys and battles that pepper the dialogue but also in the way the characters engage with their fantasies – improvising and blocking one another, weaving plots on the fly – playing. You can hear this approach at work in school playgrounds and backyards. It is only in performance – at play – that this text’s emotional depths and theatrical sophistication are realised.

This is a bold, energetic production that doesn’t let you slip away for a second and, as I watched, at times holding my breath, I was reminded of Jerzy Grotowski‘s words “The actor will do, in public, what is considered impossible.” That’s part of the thrill of this work.

This is a bold, energetic production that doesn’t let you slip away for a second.

Lit by Daniel Anderson the room in the roundhouse is configured with the audience on three sides of Justin Nardella‘s set – a pale, blonde and bare wooden platform backed by a wooden wall with hand and footholds for climbing and swinging. Along with two of the Roundhouse backstage tunnels, which have been extended into the playing area, two black chairs complete the set as a never-where playground/arena.

Messrs Berthold and Stewart have directed and choreographed this production which features Kurt Phelan and Ellen Bailey as Man and Woman respectively. Before the house lights go down Ms Bailey and Mr Phelan enter the edges of the brightly-lit space to the throbbing bass sounds of Steve Toulmin‘s music. It looks and feels very athletic; there’s a sort of pre-game tension in the air. Clad in loose sweats, they begin their stretching. They are challenging each other as they do so and, if you missed the sense of the struggle to come, the action begins with the protagonists in the slow-motion back to back walk of the duel. They turn and face each other, and they and we are away in a hail of words and sweat.

Tender Napalm explores the way two lovers deal with the aftermath of a catastrophe in their lives – the death of a child. Ridley’s text as blueprint and Berthold and Stewart’s realisation make it memorable. The couple – akin to George and Martha, Albee’s fantasist-husband and wife/best of enemies – remember and replay their agony via (as the program notes have it) a shared secret language and private stories. Their playing out is gladiatorial and by turns comic and cruel but you never for a minute think the sentiment driving the action is false.

Tender Napalm messes with your head and your heart the way good stories should.

In this production both actors are called upon to become what Stephen Wangh calls ‘acrobats of the heart’ and Kurt Phelan and Ellen Bailey’s effortless grace means they are simply marvellous in their roles. It’s rare indeed to experience actors with the ability to move and articulate breath and body as seamlessly and as beautifully as they do. Try leaping, rolling, punching and diving at the same time you finesse a line of Ridley’s poetry …

Further details on showtimes and dates for Tender Napalm can be found on the La Boite Theatre website.

 

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