Estonia’s troubled history is under the spotlight at the Arcola Theatre – and what a harsh, blinding spotlight it is. Flitting between the early years of Soviet occupation in the 1940s and the country’s struggle to cope with the after-shocks of Communism in the nineties, Sofie Oksanen’s violently gripping tale is a vivid portrait both of a besieged country and of two women from very different but similarly afflicted generations. Aliide is from a persecuted ‘kulak’ family and has married a man who repulses her in order to ensure her own survival, while her true passions lie in the direction of the cellar where she hides her deported sister’s hunted husband. Two generations later, Zara is a young Russian girl who has fallen into prostitution and is on the run, a flight that takes her to the now elderly Aliide’s isolated country home.
While the setting is Estonia both during and in the direct aftermath of Soviet occupation, this is a play as much about the abuse suffered by women at the hands of men as it is about a country’s political domination, with both forms of oppression feeding into and informing one another in Oksanen’s script. The harsh irony is that even in supposed peacetime, at the dawn of Estonia’s long-sought independence, women such as trafficking victim Zara remain as helplessly trapped as ever. In the world of the play, women are relentlessly abused, often sexually, and exist as little more than objects to the men who ruthlessly wield the power – just a pair of blue eyes, or a naked body. It is gut-wrenchingly painful yet urgent viewing.
This is difficult, neglected subject matter that is dealt with unflinchingly by Elgiva Field’s brutally intimate staging, creating an atmosphere of terror in which the audience is also prisoner and victim. In the small space of Arcola’s Studio 2, there is nowhere to hide or escape from the horror of the events being exposed. The piece opens with a claustrophobic video projection of one of the secret police’s infamous ‘interrogations’, gripping our nerves in a vice before we even begin and acting as a crucial explanation for Aliide’s actions throughout the play: terrible choices and betrayals that we might otherwise automatically condemn. By showing this horrific experience in flickering film, it becomes a nightmarish, haunting memory, separate from the onstage action yet indelibly imprinted on the walls of Aliide’s home.
From this harrowing opening, however, the pace slackens off and the slow-burner of a first half takes its time to really drag us into its thrall. Although this piece was originally commissioned as a play before being transformed into the better known bestselling novel, Oksanen remains a novelist first and foremost – and it shows. While the play as a whole is far from undramatic, exposition is often clumsy in the absence of the direct psychological illumination available to prose, forcing Oksanen to use the jarring device of having the young Aliide explain her actions to her watching older self. The way in which past and present brush against one another on the stage is a powerful visual reminder of how history lives on in individuals, yet this particular to-ing and fro-ing between Aliide’s present and her memories seems more suited to novel treatment, or possibly to film.
The script’s other key disappointment is its lack of focus on the relationship between Aliide and Zara, a pairing that could have added further nuances to the play’s examination of women but is instead neglected in favour of uncovering the past. One disturbingly violent scene aside, the dynamic between the two women never seems fully realised. But this is not to detract from performances, which deliver a powerful, winding punch. Illona Linthwaite and Elicia Daly are strong as Aliide and Zara respectively, while Kris Gummerus is often heartbreaking in the role of Aliide’s brother-in-law Hans. It is Rebecca Todd as the young Aliide, though, who gives the true knockout performance, achieving a brittle combination of vulnerability and grim resolve and suspending judgement on her character’s violent actions. As terrible as the choices made by the play’s female protagonists may be, Field’s production does its job in making these comprehensible in the context of extraordinary circumstances.
For all that it feels like a novel knocked into dramatic shape, there is one way in which this particular incarnation of Oksanen’s story trumps all others: unlike pages that can be closed, here we are not allowed to look away. Although it may take its time to unfurl, by the time it reaches its compelling final scenes Purge is an emotionally exhausting theatrical experience that is not easily forgotten.
Purge runs at the Arcola Theatre until 24 March.