Tender Napalm by Phillip Ridley is confusing and perpetually screaming in torment. It is like watching a bullet going back inside a gun at a fraction of the speed, from the shattered point of impact to pulling the trigger with every sound magnified. Fantasy, horror and tenderness are conflated in an enduring conflict between two people reinventing the past, two people who once only shared love and a future.

The play begins in an empty arena: the railway arches of the Southwark Playhouse lends itself to the gritty impression of a bloody underground fighting den. Two chairs are ominously opposed as a marching-drum beats on and the contenders enter the proverbial ring to perform a 90-minute long crescendo of anguish. The fluorescent lights flicker on, illuminating the audience who have become spectators to a bitter, vulgar battle of aggressive fantasies between a bereaved couple.

Ridley’s script is essentially endless segues of disjointed fragments of a story – an anthology of poems cut up stanza by stanza and performed despite disorder. The audience gains clarity as the debris of a love that began in unfamiliarity and coy approaches begins to reassemble.  The tragedy of the situation is grasped but can never be fully comprehended. Everything beautiful and pure: unicorns, a tropical island and nature is made to seem perverse and unholy. 

Performers Tom Byam Shaw and Lara Rossi were frantic and seemingly inexhaustible. They are visibly obsessed with each other as they attempt to abusively conquer one another, employing aggressive fantasies of UFOs, simian monkey armies and a shipwrecked paradise. The situation between the pair has become drastic, to the extent that they begrudge one another a glimmer of any blissful escapism. 

Shaw and Rossi are callous in abuse, salivating and lustful in sadistic fantasies and heartbreaking in tenderness. Shaw excels at boisterous displays of heroism and Rossi is equally unimpeachable in her vengeful pursuit of one-upmanship.

They squabble over who gains the upper hand in a regressive and incredible world – the coping mechanism for their brutal experiences. Resenting any ability to momentarily escape their suffering, the pair rarely cease the abuse to confront the painful reality. They revel in individual fantasies the other interposes with their own narrative in a duel of artificial realities. It’s reminiscent of the imaginary games played by children – the most able escapists.

David Mercatalli’s direction was punishing and resulted in astounding performances fuelled with a distressing pathos. The capabilities of Mercatalli and the on-stage duo to present both comedy and catastrophe with such physical, expressive and emotional weight is astonishing. Both performance and staging bring a faraway fantasy into our corporeal reality: if an actor points at something imaginary, the audience is inclined to look at the invisible point of interest.

Tender Napalm leaves an audience reeling; it is an extraordinary accomplishment of performance, writing and direction. Vulgarity and sadism are a verbal interjection away from surrealism and comedy. The performances are evocative and the subject matter is explored with great vividity, imagination and innovation. An unexpected, deranged and vital piece of theatre to be experienced. 

Tender Napalm, at Southwark PlayhouseStefan Nicolaou reviews Tender Napalm at the Southwark Playhouse.5