Tender Napalm Interview with Stephen Tadgh by Emily Elphinstone
27 Jun – 9 July | 8pm | Boys School
The great thing about the Dublin theatre scene, is that alongside the likes of The Gate and The Abbey putting on their own productions, there are smaller, younger companies mounting work that they’re passionate about. As many drama schools increasingly drill into their students: If you want to get work, go and create it yourself.
Of course this sometimes leads to varying standards, as people battle with smaller budgets and less experience, but often it provides the opportunity to see shows created with exciting new approaches. And so we begin the countdown to the critically acclaimed ‘Tender Napalm’: The Philip Ridley classic which is to be staged in Smock Alley’s Boys’ School later this month, by Good Buzz Productions.
I caught up with Performer and Executive Producer Stephen Tadgh a few weeks ago, to discuss the show. Stephen is an Actor, and Theatre maker, whose credits include ‘Midnight in the Republic’ (Gaiety Theatre), ‘My Mother and Other Strangers’ (BBC), and ‘Deadly’ (Abbey Theatre). He co-founded Good Buzz Productions after graduating from DIT’s Conservatory of Music and Drama.
Emily: Most of the work Good Buzz Productions’ previous work has been original pieces. Why did you choose Philip Ridley’s Tender Napalm for the company’s first production using an existing script?
Stephen: Well back in 2011 I did scenes of this show for drama school, and I thought it was very cool, and very mental. Then when Sugarglass did their version of it, I was really excited and went to see it. And I thought they did a really, really, great job; but I also thought that’s not really how I would have done it … I had a really different idea in my head of what the whole core of the show was about. So that was bopping around in my head for about 4 years, then I realised that if I was going to keep talking about it all the time, I might as well do it. And so it all began!
E: How would you describe the show to people who aren’t familiar with Ridley’s work?
S: I’d say it’s a love story, stripped of sentimentality, with very … abrasive language? No, maybe real life language, or real couple language. Not in the ordinary sense, but what we’re looking at is, at its core, a love story; dealing with tragedy, and how that affects a relationship. Ridley’s writing is brash and in your face, and it forces you to just ‘be’ with the language that’s there. For me it’s this timeless thing, trying to encapsulate a relationship in its entirety. You have the fights, and the love, and the significant moments in their life, and it all boils down to the first time they met.
E: I find it bizarre that he also writes children’s books.
S: Does he write children’s books? You can kind of see a crazy imagination in there, I suppose. Do you know which came first? I must check that out. It would be hilarious if he was there writing children’s books, thinking: ‘I just want to be writing dirty, nasty plays, with lots of swearing and violence!’
E: Maybe he alternates. After writing all the dark stuff it must be nice to just go on adventures with a pirate ship…
S: Yeah, Little Timmy gets saved by the end of it, and everything is great! Even with this, after rehearsal your mind is exhausted. And not even the language or anything, just that dark place [it goes to] … we get through half the day and we’re exhausted!
Sarah (Finlay, the director) is very good: She keeps the spirits up, and keeps this informal chat going all the time, it’s really nice. But we get to half three, there’s a lull in the room, and everyone goes a bit crazy. And the room we’re rehearsing in is massive as well, so we’re just two little dots; it’s just nuts in there … it’s fun though, very fun.
E: You all know the Boys’ School in Smock Alley Theatre intimately, having worked on, and watched shows in there. Do you think that makes a difference to how you’re imagining the show? Is the space important?
S: Definitely! I always admire a company that comes in and changes the Boys’ School; and the task the designers were asked to do, was when people enter, we want them to go ‘Oh that’s different!’ So we’re looking at ways to do that. We’re talking about changing seating around completely, and changing the layout of the audience, and the way the audience interact with the play itself. Because a large part of the way it is developing, is the audience are playing this part … whether they know it or not is kind of a null point, but the audience are kind of entrapping us; creating this kind of arena setting. So using that wall is going to be loads of fun, and exploring the space up and out much more. We’re getting rid of that whole ‘the audience are here, the lights are on here’ and having it spill out. So the minute they walk through the threshold there’s a vibe and an atmosphere, before you even see the stage.
E: Tell me a bit more about Good Buzz Productions.
S: The company was set up three years ago. It was built after leaving drama school as a way to take onus of the work we want to create, and that we want to see out there. And it has become a rotating group who come in and out, depending on the project. People have attached themselves for individual projects, or attached themselves for a period of time and broke away; but what we’re really trying to do is, we want to have fun while doing it. We don’t want to create this idea of theatre being really stressful, or being anxious; because we’ve all experienced that, when you feel like ripping your head off! So the way the company’s run, is it’s all about keeping communication open, and keeping that collaboration.
What the company tries to achieve artistically is that we’d like to reassess that relationship between audience, performer, and space. We’re quite fond of looking at something, and flipping it on its head. Not quite deconstructing, we’re not in the realm of Pan Pan, or that abstract ripping stuff apart; but we want to really define what we’d like to do with it.
E: As you’ve been contemplating this project for the last few years, how was it to finally hand over the reigns to Sarah (the director) and the team?
S: When I originally met Sarah, it was that [moment] trying to work out: ‘Is this the person? Is this not the right person?’ It’s about working together at that collaborative level. I started chatting to her, and she immediately picked up on my vibe, and where I was going with the show, and she started getting it. At the start it was me kind of purging, getting out all my ideas about the show, and she was just furiously scribbling down. Since that time two months ago I’ve given it over; because the show’s going to change naturally, and my ideas are going to change for the better, I’m sure. No show is ever about one person, and it would be completely against what the company is about if I just dictated anything. Sarah took everything I had on board, and had a vision herself, and would mix and mould them together. She has a great line that I really enjoy: ‘We play the cards we’re dealt.’ So any time if things are going a little awry in rehearsals, she says ‘It’s fine, we play the cards we’re dealt.’ The whole energy she brings in is great.
E: And how was it, finally working with the text?
S: Well there are two different versions of the play, which we didn’t realise. I bought a playscript in the Gutter bookshop, and I photocopied all the pages and gave it to the cast, but it was a nightmare to work with logistically, so I brought an e-book to distribute; and side by side they’re quite different. We found out the e-book one was the first script, which was really specific in terms of locations, and the other one came out a year after that, with all the information about geographical locations gone completely. There are odd differences … little tiny changes in detail that seem insignificant; and the ending is different in both of them! The ending in the new one is a lot more upbeat than the ending in the old one. Literally an extra half page that made you go ‘oh shit here we go again’ … In the newer one, it’s not wrapped up, but the wrapping is beginning to go on. In the other there’s no end in sight. We’ve stuck mostly to the newer version, but there’s a few monologues that work really nicely in the original that were later stripped back; so Sarah mixed and matched. Interestingly, no one remembers exactly what happens in ‘Tender Napalm’, who’ve seen it before. That’s one thing I’ve noticed. Everyone’s like ‘Oh I forgot about that, I forgot about that’ and I did too. But you don’t get any satisfaction in the play until the last 15 minutes: Nothing gets sorted at all! So I don’t know how it’s going to be received, but it’s going to be interesting!
E: And now you’re taking on ‘Tender Napalm’, are there any other plays on your theatrical bucket list?
S: I would love to do ‘The Tempest’ … to direct ‘The Tempest’ I think; I wouldn’t be in it. I want to do it on the water, in Grand Canal Basin. I want to build the whole stage on the water, and have the audience on the embankment; that’s one thing I’ve always thought would be really cool. The other one I’d love to do is ‘Romeo and Juliet’; because I’ve seen it about 15 times, and never ever gone: ‘I’m fully content with that!’ In terms of contemporary works, is there anything I really, really want to do? No, I don’t think so quite yet. There’s lots of screen stuff that I’m really interested in delving into a bit more; but those two are [the plays] I’d like to stick my claws into. But they’d be big ones. Big! The insurance alone would be mental!