Reviewed by Frances Devlin-Glass on Sunday, 16.08.09 for 3CR’s “Curtain Up” Sundays at 1.00pm on 855AM.Ariel Dorfman’s Purgatorio is engrossing theatre, and compellingly staged. It is a modern and morality-driven reworking of Euripedes’ tragedy, Medea. It is staged in an indeterminate institution – part purgatory (a place where prayer and purification effect the kind of transformation that renders souls eligible for heaven), part mental hospital and part prison. And its focus is on redemption, forgiveness, and reconciliation. This focus makes good sense when you know that Dorfman has twice been exposed in his lifetime to excoriating civil war in Argentina and Chile, and that he served under the murdered Allende. He has known outrage and murder intimately. How do people come back to full humanity after inflicting the utmost pain on their loved ones? What does revenge do to the psyche (double harm, it seems) and can one recover from it? Unsettling questions, which in this play are not unequivocally answered. Except that redemption is hoped for. It’s not, however, achieved, though the scene in which both parties lovingly and mutually engage in gathering the pieces of a fractured vase, and the tale of the forgiving grandmother, were suggestive of what might be.
Kat Chan’s set and Tom Willis’s lighting were very imaginative and elegant. The room was symbolically black and stark white, and encircled by even more symbolism in the shape of a mobius strip in silver wire and more suggestions of the same in white strips. The inside/outside theme was continually picked up in the reverses of role that occurred throughout. Lighting was subtle but responsive to darkening moods, and in its bright light mode very reminiscent of an interrogation room.
The play required of the audience some mental agility and concentration as the doctor/invigilator types and the victims were interchanged, mobius-strip style, and did a final transformation into husband and wife. Morally the theme was deeply explored with real, as opposed to forced repentance being the focus. A very clever modern, even Christian, variation on the Medea story was the presence of an unseen third eye in the form of a cctv camera whose role was to judge proper remorse. Jim Westlake’s sound design further enhanced the sense of the brokenness of the lives being depicted, being quite modern, fractured, and both musical and drawn from commonplace sounds; it was distorted and menacing.
Given the subject matter, the script required two very powerful actors, and they did not miss a beat. Natalie Carr as the woman was a fine Medea-like character, and I really enjoyed the ways in which Dorfman had her explore in excruciating detail what it was to kill the children of one’s womb. Euripedes gives her a lot of power and sympathy, but in Dorfman’s version, he makes more of this. The woman’s speech about the children being part of both herself and the Jason-like figure was full of anguish, love and hate, though delivered rather too fast for my liking. This was a speech to savour and take very slowly. Otherwise, Natalie Carr was impressive in the role. Glen Hancox was perhaps not quite as compelling in his roles, but the script did not permit him to pull as much of the focus as it did his opposite number. He was foursquare in his outrage and self-justifications, and seemed to me to lack the edge of passion.
A wonderful production of yet another Australian premiere for Hoy Polloy. Congratulations to director Ben Starick, and another success for the daring newish fringe professional company, Hoy Polloy. Well done, Wayne Pearne and everyone connected with the show, and thanks for bringing us such challenging and relevant modern works.