I left the Arcola Theatre’s performance of Sofi Oksanen’s Purge in a state of shock, the tension in my ribcage palpable. The play is about how the Estonian country and women were ravaged by Russian Communism, and Purge grips stomach muscles in a clamp and doesn’t let the knot of trepidation and horror unclench for even one moment. It is profoundly unnerving to see such grotesque issues confronted so directly, truthfully and intimately on stage right in front of you. I am convinced that I have witnessed something groundbreaking: the quite extraordinary succession of situations I have seen played out are nearly always left to the realm of film, as is the credibility with which they were depicted. From nudity, to torture, to love, to murder, to suicide, we see it all. The sustained credibility of the characters and relationships drawn is proven by the fact that the quite astonishingly extreme variety of circumstances feel so entirely believable. What each character does for and to each other is both furthest from what we can even begin to comprehend with our modern day sensibilities and, simultaneously and astoundingly, the most convincingly portrayed aspect of it all.
Purge transported me into the world of fear: every unconscious move made towards the hidden trap door, any unexpected noise or movement, and my heightened senses were ready to snap. From the outset, Matt Jamie’s sophisticated cinematography, and the delicate deftness with which Jamie Flockton’s sound was incorporated into both the film and script, conveyed with outstanding potency the essence of this fearful atmosphere. With the close-up lighting of a match, and the intensified sounds of breathing and pain, accentuated as they would be if, like the tortured victim, we too had a bag over our heads, there is an artistic talent as well as an understanding of audiences’ response that is extended into the rest of the production. Whether it be pencil scratching sounds, or perfectly timed and chosen music, or the impressively intricate set, huge kudos must go to the supporting team who made this production the powerfully affecting piece that it was.
There were flaws within the performance, but they didn’t spoil the essence of it. Moments in monologues were weakened by the slightly stilted writing: at times it is apparent that Sofi Oksanen is first and foremost a novelist. Confessions came unannounced and unasked for, making it quite a hard script to work with at points. As someone who rambles, it is not incredible to me that people will rant on, unanswered, for so long. But some provocation is required, and the tendency of Illona Linthwaite (as Aliide Truu) to tell us both personal and historical background information with a storyteller’s lecturing voice, rather than as a woman remembering to a young listener, suggested that more clarity about who the addressee is was required both in Sofi Oksanen’s script and Elgiva Field’s direction.
The modern day part of the story let down the side at times: neither Linthwaite or Elicia Daly (Zara) seemed quite haunted enough; why would Aliide not be more suspicious or at least surprised by finding a barely clad girl sprawled on her back yard? And why did Daly’s fear at being touched, so demonstrable at first, evaporate so suddenly? The two women seemed to take turns at being the victim as the script shifted its focus between their horrendous stories, without retaining quite enough continuity the rest of the time. Both male parts in this section hammered their characteristics home a little too hard as well, Benjamin Way as Pasha shouting a little too vociferously at the start, whilst Thomas played too much of a good cop to marry well with the facts of the play – that he’s a pimp, and has been enforcing and exploiting the degradation of women along with the worst of them. But I quibble, and for the most part, the acting from all was consistently strong.
This is particularly the case for Kris Gummerus (Hans Pekk) and Johnny Vivash (Martin Truu) who were utterly convincing and, dare I say it, gave flawless performances. However, I was particularly blown away by Rebecca Todd as the young Aliide, who mastered a complexity of emotions, motives and situations with a sensitivity that belied her years (patronising though that may sound). She was this play’s winning ingredient and is definitely someone I am going to watch out for, enabling the script’s powerful message to have the full and painful resonances that it demands. The sensuality of the massage she gives Hans, and the subtlety of her distaste for Martin, show her to be an actor who does not fall prey to tantalisingly strict delineations of character.
I am going to remember several things about this production of Purge: the harrowing way women were targeted; the stunning way in which this play negotiated the past with our present sensibilities without making it all some feminist rant; Rebecca Todd’s name; and the nervy state of shock I found myself suspended in after the performance had ended. I’m off to read Oksanen’s books.
Purge is playing at Arcola Theatre until 24th March. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website.