Purge, Arcola Theatre 29 February

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Aliida manages to get close to Hans

A full and expectant house was pressed up close against the set as Aliida Truu read her newspaper and then going about her evening tasks found a runaway prostute Zara unconscious in her yard.

The action in this play went on in two periods simultaneously: the period after the Second World War when the Soviet Union consolidated its hold over Estonia, and that after the fall of the Soviet Union, when hustlers and criminals prepared to make a killing.  The theme of sexual violence against women–first of all by the security services, then by pimps–was a constant.

The most effective scenes were those where the young Aliida struggled to make her way in the postwar world and to get the concealed fugitive Hans to notice her while the old Aliida looked on and seemed to understand.  Some of the present-day scenes were a lot weaker, especially since the world of Russian hustlers and whores is regrettably familiar to me, and I didn’t find the reprentations of them in Pasha (Benjamin Way) and Zara (Elicia Daly) at all convincing.

While each half of the evening ended with an effective theatrical coup, there was quite a lot of plodding novelistic exposition in between (I think this text was first of all a play, then a novel, then a play again).  You were reminded that themes like the psychological effect of defeat and concealment had been done a lot better elsewhere.

I think that Sofi Oksanen’s presentation of what she was trying to say here strayed too far towards the naturalistic.  It might even have been better to do it in the style of Greek tragedy, with Aliida starting off by describing her weary old life in the village and then recounting the myth of the Soviet invasion and subsequent oppression of Estonia and what happened to her family then questioning Zara in stichomythia.  The old Aliida could be the chorus following and commenting on the action, then bringing matters to a close.

One thing that was puzzling me got explained on the way out, when the woman in front of me turned and said to her friend, Oh, he was an undercover policeman.

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