JANUARY 2008  
  < BACK  

That fascinatingly adaptable performance space which is the Arcola has, yet again, metamorphosed, this time into a clinical white asylum cell. A single door enters this stark room, its ubiquitous metal grill hinting at secret surveillance. More overt is the CCTV camera strategically mounted over the metal institution bunk. Apart from a place to sleep, the space holds only an office table, two chairs, and a small grey mirror -- a touching symbol of vanity and self-analysis. Several centrally-heated radiators hint at a modicum of comfort in this soulless, airless environment. Charles Edwards's set and lighting design evoke that nightmare world of punishment, rehabilitation, or threatened torture.

Our sense that torture might not be far from these whitened walls is heightened by the dramatic heritage of the play's writer, Ariel Dorfman. Famous for his confrontational Death and the Maiden of 1991, the award-winning drama which allows a torture victim to confront her torturer, Dorfman has long been a voice of dissent, highlighting the political atrocities perpetrated under Chile's Pinochet regime. Purgatorio self-consciously develops the themes of retribution, restitution and salvation with disturbing clarity and insight.

Daniele Guerra directs this difficult and challenging play with sensitivity. Challenging not only for the audience but also for the two actors who dominate the space for ninety minutes of expressive outpouring and confrontational danger. Named only as Woman and Man, Adjoa Andoh and Patrick Baladi strike the right balance of intense concentration and dynamic explosion of expressive energy.

Andoh is adept at changing from manically-disturbed infanticidal mother, self-torturing herself for her revengeful act against her husband and his new lover, to cold and calculating clinician, whose psychological insight and interpretation hold the key to a freedom -- of sorts. Baladi begins as an equally-calculating therapist observer, before transforming into a slick, manipulative individual seeking atonement for that ultimate act of self-abuse -- suicide. Combined, the talent of these two actors makes for an impressive, disturbing and thought-provoking evening; hardly entertainment, Purgatorio is, nonetheless, engaging in its intellectual immediacy and challenging in its demands. What theatre should be.

There are, of course, several conceits at play with Dorfman's exploration of despair and atonement. Both characters have hidden agendas, linked to their need to force, cajole, or coax each other into that ultimate moment of acceptance of guilt and desire for forgiveness. Guilt and forgiveness are easy concepts to intellectualize. Dorfman explores the reality of guilt and forgiveness for those who have committed the most heinous of sins.

Although the first scene, with its wordy histrionics, bombards the senses, the subsequent development of a theme in which purgatory exists as a prequel to a cyclical return to human existence -- a Jewish writer's exploration of after-life which conflates Roman Catholic and Buddhist doctrine in a surprisingly fluid interplay -- begins to make perfect, painful sense. It helps, of course, to recognize Dorfman's literary heritage in the American academy. Several references in the play allude to the moral conflict surrounding Medea's homicidal support of Jason in Greek mythology. Likewise, issues of race and gender add to the overall discomfort of the protagonists, especially as Woman bemoans her lot as the spurned and rejected 'other', used and abused by her colonializing husband, only to be rejected for a woman of his own skin colour and cultural background. These all add weight to the philosophical demands of the piece; they also add levels of pain and betrayal which force us to consider our own attitudes, and abilities, to forgive.

Forgiveness. Personal freedom. Guilt. Pain. Dorfman's play explores these issues without preaching, without providing glib answers. These are issues which should confront us all. Purgatorio provides the dramatic environment to explore our own involvement with society -- to explore how far we are willing to forgive others, as well as, ultimately, to forgive ourselves.

Kevin Quarmby © 2008