A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a few well chosen words can paint entire scenes that obligate their audience to suspend disbelief. This is the case with the Australian premiere of Philip Ridley’s fiercely arousing yet delicate Tender Napalm, presented by the Perth Theatre Company.
The performance takes the innate sexual tension between a man and a woman and breaks it down into its brutally raw and vulnerable form. Vivid, often violent description and scathing wit are the tools for testing the boundaries of the human relationship. These emotional and physical boundaries are then blown wide open to leave the performers Anna Houston and Joshua Brennan utterly exposed, both metaphorically and literally.
On a theatre-in-the-round stage, blocking was imperative and flawlessly applied with the artistic direction of Melissa Cantwell. There were two audiences, which neither performer left their back to for longer than necessary. The set design itself was quietly complex and ingeniously fashioned as a modern bathroom by Claude Marcos. It was minimalistic with a single bathtub (which had running water) and a few towels. The archetypal and identical white singlets and blue jeans worn by Anna Houston and Joshua Brennan enhanced the charming simplicity of the design.
Constant and occasionally animal, every movement was vibrant and choreographed to within an inch of its life by Russell Leonard. With all the grace and precision of a dance, the acting was visually effective and brought depth to the conditions the actors described. This created almost palpable mental images in conjunction with Peter Dawson’s use of sound, such as waves lapping a shoreline, intense tribal drums, and automated intergalactic doors. Loud silences followed passionate exchanges, to the point that the hearts of the audience were just about audible.
The colourful and challenging dialogue was delivered in a way as natural as breathing. While experimental and unconventional, it didn’t once come across as obscene. A subtle, romantic plot was embedded within the performance, fragmented inventively by the disjunctive chronology and wild fantasy.
Matthew Marshall’s realistic bathroom lights were bright enough to illuminate the audience on each side of the stage. Rather than this making the audience feel awkward during the more uncomfortable and violent monologues, it allowed them to appreciate the bravery of the performers and share the vehement and provocative humour. However, the tasteful semi-dimmed light when the actors were naked produced a sensitive, private atmosphere and temporarily reprieved the audience.
Tender Napalm is a contemporary rollercoaster of emotion. The performance by Anna Houston and Joshua Brennan was an indisputable example of courage and dramatic skill. Profoundly relatable on a primal level, love and violence have never been in such inherent and poetic harmony. And warring bands of minion monkeys haven’t been so amusing since The Wizard of Oz. Having a second taste of this performance isn’t discouraged!
Bookings: BOCS Ticketing (08) 9484 1133 / www.perththeatrecompany.com.au
Friday 19 August – Saturday 10 September
Photos by: Stefan Gosatti Joshua Brennan and Anna Houston in Tender Napalm