Saturday, 3 March 2012

Theatre review: Purge

Opening with video footage of a woman being sexually taunted and assaulted by Russian soldiers, Finnish-Estonian Sofi Oksanen's 2007 play Purge, receiving its UK premiere in a translation by Eva Buchwald in the Arcola's smaller studio, clearly has no plans to be an easy watch. The setting is a tiny, remote cabin in the woods in the early '90s, not long after Estonian independece, where elderly Aliide (a wonderfully no-nonsense Illona Linthwaite) lives alone. Her apparent peace is shattered by Zara (Elicia Daly,) a prostitute who's just killed her pimp and run away, pursued by a couple of gangsters (Benjamin Way and Liam Thomas.) Much of the play is taken up with flashbacks as Aliide relives another period when the house saw a lot of upheaval: During the Soviet days, in the late 1940s or early '50s, her sister Ingel and her daughter had been sent to Siberia as "enemies of the state." Aliide was only left behind because she married local communist Martin (Johnny Vivash.) But what nobody knows is that Ingel's husband Hans, believed dead, is in fact being hidden in the cellar.

The play reveals a dark and disturbing piece of Eastern European history and explores a number of interesting angles without feeling overloaded: The general historical setting and the relationship between Finland and its then-Communist neighbour; Stalinist Russia's ruthless purging of the states it took over; the way women's lives don't necessarily get any better even if on the surface their world has changed; and a particularly dark turn into how guilt for doing something unforgivable to a loved one can make you do something even worse if it means not having to look them in the eye.

The way Oksanen's play, well-served by Elgiva Field's production, manages these heavy issues is by presenting us with a twisting thriller that's easy to get sucked into. Apparently harmless old lady Aliide hides any number of secrets. Her younger self (Rebecca Todd) seems a bit casual about her sister and niece's disappearance, perhaps because she makes no secret of being in love with her brother-in-law Hans (Kris Gummerus.) The tall, blond Scandinavian has aFULL FRONTAL MALE NUDITY ALERT!which may go some way to explain why his sister-in-law is so keen to take his wife's place. And in the 1990s scenes, her past has more surprises to throw her way, and the latter half of the play has a number of big plot twists, most of which are pretty effective. With violence on stage and much worse violence described, to say that Purge makes Estonian history more palatable would be taking it a bit far. But the storytelling skills of the writer, director and cast means the glimpses into the bleak history of a comparatively obscure corner of Europe grabs you from the off and makes you care.

Purge by Sofi Oksanen in a translation by Eva Buchwald is booking until the 24th of March at the Arcola Theatre's Studio 2.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

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