Arcola Theatre, London
Aliide, an elderly Estonian is reading quietly in her cabin when Zara, a young, Russian ‘dancer’, arrives on the doorstep. Bruised, bloodied and desperately seeking refuge from a hungry Mafiosi, Zara is warily allowed inside until she can make a break for the Finnish border. As they while away the hours through cagey cross-interrogation, the trials of Zara’s present begin to stir the ghosts of Aliide’s past.
Commissioned by the Finnish National Theatre in 2007 and transformed into a multi-award winning novel before finding its way back to the stage, Sofi Oksanen’s historical drama has been translated into 38 languages. Under Elgiva Field’s brilliant direction, Borealis Theatre makes this a gripping and heart-wrenching British debut. A story of unrequited love, gender oppression, deception and entrapment, Purge flits between the communist occupation of the 1950s to the gaudy chauvinism and exploitation of the capitalist early 90s drawing parallels where it can.
Full of some very long scenes and intricate silences, Field’s natural, unhurried pacing of the play rewards the audience with an exquisite 135 minutes whilst the writing delivers some beautifully conceived characters. However, this is not the case for all the roles: there is a clear disparity in the writing quality between the post-war and modern scenes. When set amongst the anxiety of the Stalinist regime, the writing and direction takes care to linger and eek out every complex emotion, every character warrants sympathy with clearly established and sensitively enacted motivations, the themes are subtly interwoven and the action (including nudity) brings the stage to life with little hint of contrivance or showboating. In contrast, the modern warrants far less investment. Clunky dialogue and hurried, shallow character exposition renders what should be pertinent and immediate into a set of wooden, and at worst, disinteresting scenes. My last qualm is with a one-off use of film illustrating a flash-back. Though at the time it seemed exciting and classy - filmed in black and white with plenty of atmospheric cigarette smoke – it confused the perspective of narration and detracted from the sterling live presence colourfully established by Rosemary Flegg’s charismatic set and the fantastic performers that filled it.
Despite these petty irritants, there is some brilliant acting from Illona Linthwaite and Rebecca Todd (Old Allide and Young Allide respectively) and a painful and tender washing scene quietly plays away on every heartstring available. Another lovely touch is that in the scenes involving the young Allide, the old Allide will remain unseen, silently perched as our voyeuristic gateway. This leads to some lovely meta-theatrical moments and only strengthens our connection to this flawed anti-heroine.
Final advice, do buy a programme; though an MA in Baltic studies isn’t needed for this ten-pound rollercoaster, the helpful time-line inserted within will set the scene and fill the gaps.