“Our country doesn’t exist any more”
Despite the riches on offer on the multitude of stages across London, contemporary European theatre is something that is all too rarely seen here. But theatres like East London’s Arcola and companies like Borealis (who mounted 8 Women at the Southwark Playhouse last year) are trying to redress that balance and have most definitely come up trumps with this excoriating piece of drama. Written by Finnish-Estonian Sofi Oksanen and latterly adapted into a hugely successful novel, Purge has an epic scope – weaving together the stories of two women, Aliide and Zara, with the troubled history of post-WWII Estonia and the struggles and compromises made by a people living under occupation.
It is rarely easy viewing, violence is presented matter-of-factly and none of these unpalatable truths are sugar-coated. Zara is a prostitute who has murdered her pimp and is on the run from gangsters, the much older Aliide is living in seclusion out in rural Estonia trying to keep the past at bay and reluctantly offers the younger woman sanctuary. And as they gingerly step around each other and slowly reveal their hidden stories – the focus being on Aliide’s extraordinary history – the ramifications of their decisions become clearer as the realisation of a strange connection comes hand in hand with a real danger knocking at the door.
Through Eva Buchwald’s translation, Oksanen expertly manages to create a thriller that plays out with heart-racing tension in both the current day and in Aliide’s recollections of her past, also contrasting and comparing the experience of the two women. Under Soviet rule, Aliide chose marriage to a Communist apparatchik against the revolutionary nature of her family and ended up complicit in working against them, whilst simultaneously hiding her brother-in-law from the authorities. Her resulting shame at being a collaborator placed side by side with Zara’s equal shame of being recognised for the pornographic films she was coerced into. And the violence, often sexual, that is perpetrated against them seeps into their nature as neither shies away from moments of eye-watering aggression in order to get closer to the truths that they need.
Elgiva Fields’ production brilliantly captures the oppressive air of Oksanen’s story in the intimacy of the Arcola’s second studio, Joshua Pharo’s dank lighting of Rosemary Flegg’s spare design working well as the story tightens its grip on the audience, the unflinching brutality of its revelations all the more powerful for being so very close to us. Illona Linthwaite is astonishing as the older Aliide, gruff and abrasive but powerfully persuasive in her self-justifications, and I loved the choice to keep her onstage for much of the reminiscences, this is a woman who owns her memories no matter how difficult they are. Rebecca Todd as the younger version possesses much of the straightforwardness we come to see from Linthwaite and the grim determination to do what must be done, as she sees it, especially where the concealment of Hans, whom she truly loves, is concerned.
The men do well here: Kris Gummerus’ Hans is a tall drink of Nordic water but is quietly extremely moving; Johnny Vivash’s middle-ranking Communist official is horribly credible as a man blithely adopting the new status quo in order to get along regardless of its true nature; and Benjamin Way as the brash hoodlum Pasha has a powerful physicality which exudes cocky danger. But this is about the women, and what beautifully realised, complexly drawn and utterly believable characters they are. Concepts of fractured identity, though perfectly situated here in the travails of twentieth century Estonia, echo across gender and nationality. And with Elicia Day as a scrappy Zara, Todd and the outstanding Linthwaite demand our attention from the off and reward it with a play of extraordinary depth and clarity: highly recommended.