If contemporary dance could give a running commentary, it would look and sound a lot like the genre defying piece Tender Napalm, presented by La Boite Theatre and the Brisbane Festival.
The un-named Man and Woman are already in the playing area warming up like athletes before the play begins. The set is sparse bar two chairs and a climbing wall at the rear. Along with Justin Nardella’s minimalist set; Daniel Anderson’s lighting design, and Steve Toulmin’s soundscape was complementary in their subtle presence, so as to not detract from the fantastical world about to be created onstage.
Standing back to back on the stage, the man and woman (Kurt Phelan and Ellen Bailey) begin slowly pacing away from each other like a duel at ten paces. But rather than blazing guns as their chosen weapons, they spar with a verbal pas de deux. They sprout a crude secret bedroom language that usually is only privy to the couple involved, “I could squeeze a bullet between those lips.” They go on to talk of grenades being pushed into nether regions as a form of sadistic love ritual – with the pin still poking out. I don’t know whether to be turned on or terrified. One thing is certain; in this play, words cut deep.
I could squeeze a bullet between those lips… You accept this bullet in your palate. It would feel as natural as a pearl in the palm of an oyster.
Philip Ridley’s verbosely poetic two-hander is as physical as it is wordy. And it is in the physicality that really saves the play from just being talking heads narrating a storybook, to a unique theatrical experience. Directed by David Berthold, together with Australian Dance Theatre Artistic Director and choreographer, Garry Stewart, created a physical language that bring this piece to life. Borrowing from contemporary dance, martial arts and tai chi, the two actors must be applauded for their stamina and skill in their commitment to such a challenging and strenuous script that lasted for just under an hour and a half with no interval.
Phelan’s dance background was obvious as his athleticism and panache was really something to behold as he leapt and contorted and executed the stylised movement with grace, charm, and even wit.
Tender Napalm explores (in a non-linear and fantastical way) the aftermath of a young couple after catastrophic event. In limbo, they create a world where they are ship-wrecked on an island after their metaphorical tsunami. Like a theatre sports game and a bitter domestic feud, they battle for the last word, taking turns to evolve and twist the story to control the power over the land and over the relationship. With a story-like narration involving the slaying of serpents, rivaling monkey tribes, and alien abductions, the delivery was obviously very presentational and we only saw glimpses of the real anguish this couple was facing in fleeting remarks and moments in between the next chapter of their fantasy world.
I had little expectations coming into the play bar the title Tender Napalm, and a poster of a couple embracing and wrapped in colourful party lights. It took a while to adjust to the fact that this piece was no party, and that there was more napalm than tenderness. Then it took a little more time to figure out just what was going on and what it all meant. I was beginning to question whether it fitted into the absurdist genre. When I figured out the symbolism and started going along for the ride, after a while I started feeling a little starved of naturalism and the deeply raw emotion behind all the fantastical battle of the sexes. Amongst all the monkeys and unicorns, no-one was talking about the elephant in the room. However, the pay-off came towards the end where all pretence was dropped in a naturalistic scene in which time rewound itself to their first meeting and first kiss. This scene was enjoyable and spoke volumes, but for myself, would have liked a little more of this scattered throughout to even up the “tender” quota.
Regardless of my personal penchant for naturalistic theatre on that particular night, Tender Napalm is an interesting and unique piece of physical theatre that can be appreciated for its contribution to the evolvement of theatre language and debate of form.