Tender Napalm, a new play by the East London playwright Philip Ridley, is as close as theater is likely to come to the Platonic Ideal of a Pure Play. Its set is a rectangle on the floor; the lights are static; there is no music; the costumes look like comfy clothes the actors chose themselves. And I hope they did! Because the real (only) visual element of this “theater” is the acrobatic athleticism displayed by Blake Ellis and Amelia Workman, who play “Man” and “Woman” respectively. The same artistic impulse forms the drama around two archetypes (note the characters’ names). You might categorize the dramatic conflict as a “battle of the sexes,” which would not be incorrect. But in truth, “sex” is just a way of saying “two complementary but diametrically opposed positions.” And Ridley makes a point of telling us Man and Woman can (and do) switch places very easily.
If you’re looking for plot, narrative realism, or unique peculiarities of character, Tender Napalm will probably disappoint. (Frank Scheck in the New York Post called it “pretentious, pseudo-poetic claptrap”; Erik Haagensen in Backstage dismissed it as a “pretentious two-hander … awash in a sea of overwrought verbiage more suited to the printed page than a theater.”) If you are looking for ear-kissing arguments and ekphrasis out the aperture, however, Tender Napalm is the play for you. Pace Haagensen, the poetry of Tender Napalm is meant to be heard, not read, and big props are due to Mr. Ellis and Ms. Workman for intoning the Cockney script like natives, infusing the evening with acapella music of the downtrodden, working class, English variety. As Haagensen points out, the language of the play is rhetorically and erotically dense. You might even call it “blue.” With respect to language the play breaks from its Platonic Ideals and becomes all detail. But the details are so fantastical, so improbable in their minute specificity, that they become difficult to attach to any recognizable emotion. Or maybe their specificity is only a trope of sadistic mania, a general calculus of erotic fantasy that, like calculus, looks complex, replete with indecipherable Greek symbols, but is in fact just the infinitely multiplied minutia of quotidian juvenile fantasy.
If you’re getting lost in my review, Tender Napalm is most definitely not for you. My rhetorical strategy, like that of the playwright (who is, by the way, an author of children’s books, or, as Alfred Hickling put it a master of the art of creating “childish plays for adults”) is to elevate childish allusion and mythopoeia with very sophisticated, literary language in order to generate artistic frisson (or cognitive dissonance). Ridley takes two impulses — the Modernist tendency to look for universals in a grand narrative and the Romantic celebration of the unique, the quirky, the individual — and plays them off of each other, the former appearing in the sets and characters, the latter in the “baroque” language. The critics either love or hate Ridley because they confuse the difference between universality and profundity. Most everything profound can only take up a little surface area; and things that are universal are usually incredibly shallow. (Picture the visual metaphor here.) Ridley’s characters are universal. His language is profound. His practice is to create a dialectic between those two modes of comprehension. Get it?
As I said above, if you need a story to get you through the night, Tender Napalm will make you feel like Oedipus at a family reunion. If you love the play of words, their ability to create a reality right in front of your eyes and hold you to it, you will enjoy this play. Because this play is the Platonic Ideal of Pure Play: it is a play about play, about poetry’s effect on the mind’s eye. And if you can dig that you just might be an Oedipus of pure internal sight.