A flick of a wrist, the extension of a finger, a fist beating twice upon a chest. These are the gestures that propel Orla Sanders’ searing one-woman performance in purged – the unsettling but impenetrable new play by Chris Polites appearing at the Hope Theatre in Islington.
Sanders portrays Uncle Alex, the survivor of a recent suicide attempt, who shares his story, mingling past and present, as he attempts to make sense of the world he meant to leave. While Sanders is the sole performer onstage, the narrative makes room for her to embody two other characters also named Alex: the protagonist’s very young niece, and a troubled dominatrix.
The relationship between uncle and niece proves to be the most effective element of Polites’ text. And the toddler’s empathetic grace, as recounted by her uncle, offers some touching relief from the play’s churning darkness. The depictions of the BDSM relationship of the older two Alexes tend to pull the play thematically off-course; muddying the play’s insight into self-harm.
Clarity is not Polites’ aim, evidently, and his intentionally hazy, fragmented text is inconsistent in its impact. Sanders’ speeches refer to Uncle Alex exclusively in second-person – “You walk up the stairs,” etc. – which starts off hypnotically but eventually becomes merely clunky – “Don’t get you wrong” is the most awkward example. A meta-theatrical breakdown where the “you” suddenly refers to individual audience members comes across as heavy-handed rather than profound. Still, the combination of Sanders’ gender-bending performance and the grammatical verbal distance between speaker and character compellingly distorts the expected sense of clear actor-character-audience boundaries. If never particularly original, Polites’ text is consistently provocative.
It is movement, though, not text, through which the skilful Sanders best captures the anguished aura of loneliness that undergirds the play. As staged by Justin Murray with movement direction by Amy Lawrence, the stylized opening moments of purged feature the searching, haunted physicalisation of a mind in crisis; hinting at the disturbing intersections between pain and beauty that the play will go on to explore. While Sanders’ spoken performance is usually engrossing and often endearing, she, along with the play itself, is at her best when she gives into silence; allowing her body to stretch, shake, and contort, desperately seeking a way to express a suffering too complex for language to articulate.
purged never quite identifies what it wants the audience to make of the unhappiness of its amorphous protagonist, but, in those solitary movements, Uncle Alex’s existential agony permeates, and his unspoken cry for connection is heard.
purged ran at The Hoe Theatre from 5-5 February. For more information on the company, click here.