Purge

Sofi Oksanen
Borealis Theatre in association with Oblique House
Arcola Theatre

Hans (Kris Gummerus), Young Aliide Truu (Rebecca Todd) Credit: Simon Kane
Zara (Elicia Daly) and Old Aliide Truu (Illona Lintwaite) Credit: Simon Kane

This complex drama, commissioned by the Finnish National Theatre, presents an elderly Estonian widow who confronts her past when a young Russian woman turns up in her garden, the victim of Russian sex-traffickers and pimps. It was staged in Helsinki in 2007 and the following year Oksanen, herself of mixed Finnish-Estonian parentage, published a reworking as a novel which went on to win several literary prizes.

In her acceptance speech on being awarded the European Book Prize in Brussels in 2010 she declared that "in my work I try to make the recent past of former Soviet countries understandable to others" and in writing it she draws on sources ranging from women's magazines from the 1930s (when Estonia was first independent) to KGB files. But this is not just about the cruelties and compromises of a woman's life under a repressive regime but reflects the awful accommodations all kinds of people have to make to enable themselves to survive; it's about dealing with guilt and living with traumatic memories.

Illona Linthwaite as the elderly Aliida Truu is on stage from the start reading a newspaper, so an episode on film shown as soon as the lights go down is presumably her memory of being abused and tortured and thereafter, when the action moves back in time with Rebecca Todd playing her younger self, she is always there, watching and sometimes a voice in the younger self's head. Both actresses give powerful performances.

The Purge of the title could refer to the purge that first took away Aliide's parents, the arrest of her sister and niece which led to them being sent to Siberia or to the purging of guilt on the part of Aliide as she comes to terms with the past and finds her own way of atonement while the young Russian Zara (Elicia Daly) must purge the shame and degradation she feels from being forced into prostitution and appearing in perverted porno movies.

The layers of the narrative are revealed only slowly, which makes the story continually engrossing as we see the young Aliida hiding brother-in-law Hans, whom she herself loves, in the their house where she now lives with the communist party official she marries to give herself protection. How she manages to keep her husband Martin from discovering Hans down in the cellar, why he doesn't notice someone else has been in the kitchen bath before him doesn't concern the playwright, she is interested in emotions not practicalities.

Martin has his own secret disappointment but, though Oksanen makes him true believer, she gives neither Johnny Vivash nor Kris Gummerus as Martin and Hans much to build their characters on and she is not really interested in the political ideologies but in the struggle to survive any oppression. KGB may have become market forces mafia but here they are males abusing females.

Liam Thomas as Russian Lavrenti, carving a giant wooden dildo as he watches Zara on a monitor before her escape, is pretty frightening. He turns out to have a humane streak but Benjamin Way makes his partner pimp, tattooed Pasha, ruthlessly brutal.

Director Elgiva Field manages to generate tension without tipping into melodrama and designer Rosemary Flegg has contrived a set that can accommodate the place where Zara is kept as sex slave as well as the rooms of Aliida's house and its surrounding garden. There is a real sense of a place being lived in. Jamie Flockton's sometimes ominous sound design and Joshua Pharo's lighting add to the atmosphere and aid the frequent transition from past to present.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton