Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Purge at the Arcola Theatre

The harrowing novel, Purge by Sofi Oksanen, charting the sad history of an Estonian family, has since its publication in Finland in 2008 won several significant international prizes.

But Purge started life as a play, and when it first ran at the Finnish National Theatre, the production was immediately invited to Dramaten in Stockholm, and to Eesti Draamateater in Estonia. Such is the power of this story of war and passion in a small European country.

The UK premiere of Purge at Arcola Theatre starts with scenes from an atrocity. It's almost unbearable watching the filmed sequence, and I have to admit, while imagining what was happening - the assault on a defenceless young woman by jeering soldiers - I began to worry that this play would be just too grim for me.

But the scene soon changes and we're in the kitchen of old Aliide Truu (Illona Linthwaite), the lead in the play. When she finds a down-and-out young girl, Zara, played by Elicia Day, in her yard, Aliide's past history begins to haunt her. Sensing the horror of the scantily clad Zara's physical and emotional bruises acquired during her short life, Aliide remembers things she'd rather forget from her own past.

Old Aliide (Illona Linthwaite) and Zara (Elicia Daly). Photo by Simon Kane
The action moves to Estonia some forty years before, when Aliide, married to a local party official, is hiding her sister's Estonian husband, Hans Pekk, an Independent Estonian Army soldier, (played by Finnish born Kris Gummerus) in the cellar of the family home. We soon see that the young Aliide, portrayed brilliantly by Rebecca Todd, is hopelessly in love with Hans Pekk. Her gaze never leaves his body. Her brave - and deceitful - actions driven by her obsession do not, however, conceal her fear, nor her natural vulnerability. Both Rebecca Todd and Kris Gummerus give convincing and natural performances. You could almost see Aliide's unrequited love landing on the handsome shoulders of Hans Pekk, as she rubs his back in the bathtub.

Young Aliide (Rebecca Todd) and Hans Pekk (Kris Gummerus). Photo by Simon Kane
In this scene we are in the harsh age of the Soviet rule in Estonia, where German collaborators are relentlessly and often wrongly pursued, where food is scarce and where the wrong word uttered by the wrong person could see them being deported to Siberia, or 'interrogated' by the local Russian officials. To survive, others have to be betrayed and when we find that Aliide's niece and sister, as well as her parents before them, have been deported to the Gulags, we begin to wonder how low Aliide has sunk in order to save herself and Hans Pekk.

When back in modern times - the early 1990's, immediately after the fall of the Soviet rule - we are told the story of another tragic life, that of Zara. She is pursued by two Russian pimps whom she's managed to escape from but who are hell bent on retrieving and making an example of her. The two men, played by Liam Thomas and Benjamin Way are suitably scary and despicable. In the scene, one, Lavrenti (Liam Thomas), is perfecting a wooden carved phallus, which is then used by the other, Pasha, (Benjamin Way) to torment another 'mis-behaving' girl out of the audience's view. But the two men aren't in agreement with each other; we detect a softness and a reluctance to torture the girls in Lavrenti, while Pasha dreams of more outrageous money-making schemes, 'The world is changing and it's all up for grabs.'

Having seen the danger Zara is in, we begin to wonder why the young girl has sought Aliide out. The old woman too is suspicious, but while they try to hide their tragic pasts from each other, the true relationship between the two women is revealed. It's time to purge the past.

The play moves skilfully from one age to another, the two Aliides, old and young, are even allowed to communicate across the eras, something that could only work if the play was as well produced as this version of Purge at Arcola was. We, as the audience, completely understand that it is really old Aliide remembering, taking stock of her past life.

The set design also helps the play to go back and forth in time; there is a kitchen with an alcoved bed, as well as trapdoor which very convincingly acts as the hiding place of Hans Pekk. The actors across the time zones somehow manage to remain unseen if in the wrong era, or as in the case of old Aliide, even take part.

This time travel in a play is a feat in itself, even if the subject matter was - say - romantic love. But Purge is a story of abuse, of political fervour, of obsessive love, of survival. It's a difficult play to make into enjoyable watching. Even so, this production managed to drill down into the real personal experiences of the characters. One could understand why each character did what he or she did, even Allide's political activist husband, Martin, played by Johnny Vivash, is just an idealist gone too far. OK, perhaps the thug of a Russian pimp, Pasha (Benjamin Way), would need a bit more of a PR campaign for him to seem sympathetic. His character was truly challenging to play, and Benjamin did it brilliantly, dare I say it, with the help of the slang of a modern football hooligan.

Because I had previously read the book, I found the play a thrilling, although at times, a haunting spectacle. The characters, especially Kris Gummerus and Rebecca Todd, as Hans Pekk and the young Aliide, filled in details about the character's passionate tendencies that weren't necessarily clear from the novel.

After the play when we were fortunate enough to meet the cast and production team, I asked one member of the audience who hadn't read the novel Purge how they found the play. I was told the performance had re-ignated a love for theatre that the person hadn't realised they'd lost.

So not only does this play tell an important story of a tragic history of a country - Estonia - and its people, it also encourages a new audience for theatre. You cannot ask for any more than that.

Borelia Theatre Production
The Arcola Theatre
24 Ashwin Street
E8 3DL
22 February - 24 March 2012