I was talking to a friend the other day, a Japanese critic, who was expressing bafflement by this country’s theatre’s obsession with domestic interiors. “It’s as if” she said, “everything has to look like someone’s front room.” But if our sets are imaginative extensions of our living rooms, it is not so much that we demand our theatre to be gemutlichkeit and fuzzy, although we do that as well, but chiefly because we enjoy so much the process of having them stranged. Tonight a lovingly echt construction of a mittel European kitchen, with bronze copper kettle and drying sheets strung across a line provides the setting for Sofi Oksanen’s layered assault on domesticity with its stark cries of rage emanating from the very fibres of gender relations.
Adapted by the playwright into an international best seller and Sunday Times book of the year, this linguistically spare and unsparingly violent play is a delicate investigation of women’s bodies and choices across generations of Estonian women. Aliide (Illona Linthwaite) is now an old woman, having lived a compromised life between a hardline Communist husband Martin (played with jocular blitheness by Johnny Vivash) and her hide-out love, her brother-in-law Hans (an understated physical performance by Kris Gummerus). She plays a political game to ensure safety, which is denied to Zara (a wild-eyed Elicia Daly), a contemporary Estonian woman who has lived a brutalised life as a sex worker, and who turns up at Allide’s house seeking protection.
Oksanen cross-references these two women’s experiences with an unerring clarity. Shame infuses their lives, the shared shame of being recognised on village streets or from the global economy of pornographic images. She elegantly maps the territories of ownership of women’s bodies, from the brutality of totalitarian soldiers and the deregulated rush of businessmen. The wits that so many women rely on to get through are held-up glistening with rage, and the sense of historical tragedy is profound, just as the sense of successive regimes of the 20th century’s betrayal of women is scouring. “Are you my comrade?” Martin asks bouncing the young Aliide on his knee, moments after praising her for her “natural class instincts”. “Yes, yes, yes” she squeals in reply.
At its best Eva Buchwald’s translation is blunt and scarifying, but there are frequent lapses into the plainly mechanical. The dialogue moves haphazardly between naturalism and some peculiar strain of anti-realism. The production, with a mixed cast, frequently trips on this uneven scree and feels disjointed as a result. In the slow moments of domestic action, Elgiva Field manages to pull off a measure of transcendence: the scene in which Aliide washes Hans a delicate moment where drudgery and tender care compete, perfectly crystallising Aliide’s stalled desires and agency, but the overall impression is of a tennis player facing a malfunctioning ball machine, racquet at various defensive ungainly angles.
Purge is given punch by its bareknuckle approach to violent sexual imagery. It hovers thick in the air, as Aliide’s gnarled staff presses into the arse of the prone Zara, as she recounts hot light bulbs forced between legs, as on a wispy video screen a gun is pushed phallically. By now sexploitation is a post-modern wormhole, trapped in the viewer’s relationship with the image, tired of its own hype. It’s latest trick of reversing the genders, as in the novels of Steig Larsson or something like Base Moi, has resulted in a queering of the high-concept grounds of the violent blockbuster. From Linda Dement to Lady Gaga, to the aestheticised opiations of the recent Revival of the Bee at Soho Theatre, gender complexity has been liberally applied – guns and female genitalia have become today’s garden trug.
The sexual violence in Purge both enfolds the play like dark matter, while from within is born on intricate currents of contextualisation. It boxes smarter and more direct. The French philosopher Julia Kristeva’s notion of abjection encompassed both the abused woman’s body and war crimes. “As in true theatre, without make-up and masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live”. Oksanen’s women are like refuse, the corpses we are drawn to gaze at. But what Kristeva missed about abjection – that it can be social and political – Oksanen runs with. The routine disfigurements which blight their lives – the deathly cost of playing the game – have them as vectors of a constitutive social repression. They remind us of the horror of civilisation, those horrors we thrust aside in order to live as part of society.
And yet this is no exercise: it’s precisely that these women are drawn so lucidly in relation to violence toward women, that allows them to come alive with tremendous pathos and dignity. Here Oksanen (who has been talked about for a Nobel) betters Brecht, to whom this production owes a great deal. These women are vivid. Their acts are complex: the nobility of sacrifice, that limited power, is stained with complicated resentments. To refuse sacrifice, to get on with it, is the hardest task of all. Brecht understood power structures but he never understood their heavy-breathing. He never understood women, and yet a nervous and uncharacteristic line from a 1922 poem could have been describing Oksanen: “She took things seriously. She didn’t float. She thought.”
Read our interview with Sofi Oksanen.