Saturday, 9 March 2013

Purple Heart - review

Written by: Anna Jones (@Now4567Anna)

Gate Theatre, London

Bruce Norris is a master manipulator of language; his play Clybourne Park won every drama prize available to it (including a Tony, Olivier and the Pulitzer Prize), and Purple Heart exhibits once again his deftness and skill. Superb performances from Nathan Kiley (Thor), Rosemary Prinz (Grace), Christopher Evan Welch (Purdy) and Laurie Metcalf (Carla) bring to life this twisted, traumatic tale of mishandled and misplaced love. All set against the oppressive backdrop of 1970’s Vietnam disillusionment and domesticity.  

Photo: Hugo Glendinning
Carla and her son Thor are coming to terms with the loss of father and husband Larsen, all under the well-meaning eye of Grace, the deceased's mother. But Carla is not mourning a doting husband, rather a bully who on returning from a military tour used to "spend the first week showing you everything you'd done wrong around the house". Then a stranger turns up on the doorstep, penetrating their small world.

Norris uses clever word play between characters - too clever to quote in this review-,  creating moments of comedy which are funny but somehow sticky, as the shadow of grief and violence is never far away. Director Christopher Haydon has rightly emphasised the sometimes pointedly unrealistic rhythm of dialogue, allowing the story to unravel painfully: sometimes slowly, sometimes at lightening speed. 

The design, provided by Simon Kenny (a Jerwood Young Designer), is uncomfortably realistic, its perfect reproduction of a 1970’s front room making everything feel that bit more claustrophobic. Carla and Thor are trapped in a confinement of beige and brown, with very little variance of colour.

Norris admits in his prologue that he wrote this play during a time "when (he) had developed terrible doubts about the nature of love and kindness". Carla and Grace, like Purdy and Thor, are plagued by the inability to express their suffering in a way that leads to healing. This cynicism certainly pervades throughout the production, but, overwhelmingly, one is left with a feeling of having witnessed the work of an exceptional playwright.

This production runs until 6 April 2013.

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