Watching it is equal parts enthralling and uncomfortable, as it should be.
Much of the initial perplexity clears up when we realise that they are narrating collaboratively, at times modifying but mostly adding to each others’ accounts. The stories reduce to three; then, finally, to two. One of them involves a sea-serpent, a host of monkeys, a tsunami, an alien UFO, and the pair fighting for dominion of the island they are stranded on. Part of the pleasure of the play is hearing how they cleverly use words to weave their way out of fictional tangles.
The other tale is less extravagant, but contains, in one shape or another, all the building blocks of the first. While the first is told forcefully in the present tense, the second is remembered, assembled from hesitantly offered fragments of the past. We never find out their names, their ages, or where they are. These facts don’t really matter. What we do decipher, from moments in which they seem to crumble, is that their story-telling — vigorous, brimming with intensity and violence — is a kind of stay against an unbearable reality.
And, at last, we find out what that unbearable reality is. It’s easy to miss it, but one critical line, properly unravelled, explains all of Tender Napalm’s enigmas. What remains is the sorrow and the pain.
The production, by Malta’s Unifaun Theatre, is uniformly excellent. Actors Andre Agius and Bettina Paris are supremely talented; director Toni Attard and choreographer Sandra Mifsud deserve serious accolades for their work. Watching it is equal parts enthralling and uncomfortable, as it should be.
But, it isn’t entirely satisfying. The truth is there’s a very simple trick at the heart of Tender Napalm: the combination of love with violence. As in Mercury Fur, apparently a very different play, sadism and desire mingle precipitously, and it’s almost disappointing to see so similar a rhetorical strategy deployed to such divergent ends.
Napalm is one of the cruelest weapons. Survivors experience constant, excruciating pain. There is pain to loss, but it is not this kind. The indulgent oxymoron of the play’s title, finally, is untrue both to the unbearable event which drove the couple half-mad and to napalm’s tragic legacy. And once this is recognised, the play’s unabating intensity, its casual profanity, and its brutal sensuality (grenades stuffed into various orifices, in this case), are revealed to be what they have been all along: gratuitous and insubstantial, mere glazing in a story afraid to engage with real life.