Let’s do the Napalm again | Adrian Buckle, Bettina Paris and Andre Agius

As Unifaun’s critically-acclaimed take on Philip Ridley’s Tender Napalm returns to the local stage ahead of a trip to the Edinburgh Fringe, we speak to actors Bettina Paris and Andre Agius, and Unifaun producer Adrian Buckle.

Andre Agius and Bettina Paris in Tender Napalm. Photography by Christine Joan Muscat Azzopardi
Andre Agius and Bettina Paris in Tender Napalm. Photography by Christine Joan Muscat Azzopardi

The play has already had a significant impact on local audiences, who tended to see it as both powerful and bracing. Why do you think it had this effect? 

Adrian Buckle: The play is about truth. It is about a young couple’s suffering, about how pain and anguish can drive us into madness. Sure there are unicorns, UFOs, dolphins, sea monsters, subservient monkeys and all that in the play, but the message of the play is about truth. Ridley, the author, gets his message across through narration in most of his plays. Tender Napalm is no exception. And through these narrations, Ridley is able to manipulate the audience’s perceptions and feelings like a pro playing with clay. Also, the direction and performances were top notch. [Director] Toni Attard and [assistant director] Lizzie Eldridge worked very hard on coaching the actors on their interpretation, and Sandra Mifsud’s choreography was incredible. The actors, although young, proved they can tackle any script and offer strong performances. 

Given that you're going back to the play now, would you say your performance has evolved in any way since the play's first run? 

AB: It keeps evolving with every rehearsal. Toni and the actors keep changing and improving things. We understand the play better now and so are able to work the necessary changes into the performance. Also, we had a couple of very helpful emails from the author himself which have helped us in no small measure. We understand the sexuality and sexual tones of the play better, we understand the pathos better too. We know exactly what the play is about and where it is leading towards.

Are you looking forward to performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival? What are you the most excited and/or anxious about, and what kind of reaction are you expecting from the audience? 

AB: Performing at the Fringe is a terrifying experience. In Malta, people know us.  When they see Unifaun they know what to expect. In Edinburgh no one knows us and we will be competing with thousands of productions. It is a bit like starting all over again. Luckily, we have a strong play under our belts. So we will look to impress on the international stage. Also, the costs of participating are enormous.  Luckily we have support from Malta Arts Fund Mobility Fund, St James Cavalier, Eden Cinemas and 89.7 Bay Radio to help us. What will the audiences in Edinburgh be like? They will definitely want to know what this Maltese theatre company can do. We hope not to disappoint.

How important would you say the play has been to you as actors, generally speaking? What have you learnt from it so far... even in terms of how it fits into the overall cultural scene in Malta? 

Andre Agius: Back in November I resolved that this year would be the year of a theatrical challenge for me… and it came sooner than I had predicted. As soon as I read the script, I was immediately blown away by the stories of these two lovers; stories they narrate to each other during the course of the play, which to them is a process and has a much deeper meaning.

I feel that doing Tender Napalm was possibly one of the best decisions I have ever made, because it gave me as an actor the challenge I craved, as well as the exposure, because when you’re in a two-hander the attention is really on the both of you all the time.

I really feel it helped me grow as an actor and also as a person – it’s a very challenging piece of work, both physically and psychologically. I think that as an actor, it really helped me understand the idea of reading between the lines, because the play is layered in a way that the more you look into it the more you find, and the more you understand these characters and their relationship.

Bettina Paris: Tender Napalm introduced me to the world of straight drama and instigated my growth into a more mature and professional actress.  Since the production team was made up of a small group of people, we were able to focus on the text with such detail, that today, I find myself attached to the script in more ways than one.

It is such a beautiful piece of theatre that we have worked so hard to put together and make it our own. It will always hold a special place in my heart. The role of Woman challenged my abilities and allowed me to discover a part of myself that I never knew even existed. It allowed me to stretch my body and mind to the limit and aim for nothing less but a high standard.

The experience also strengthened my belief that professional acting is not solely about talent, but largely dependent on dedication, commitment and responsibility. I think Tender Napalm is a play that anyone can relate to, and it is such familiarity and intimacy that challenges and impacts on the audience.

Tender Napalm will be playing at St James Cavalier, Valletta between July 2 and 5. It will be playing at the Edinburgh Fringe from August 10 to 25