views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Purged
The Hope Theatre
6th February 2017

★★★☆☆

Orla Sanders as Alex

Photography provided by Catharsis Theatre

There are no meddlesome gods, mythical beasts or epic voyages in Purged. However, there is plenty of death and melancholy, so you can understand why it's been staged by Catharsis Theatre, a company that specialises in Greek tragedy. In this new piece of writing, Orla Sanders plays three different characters, all coincidentally named Alex. The young girl is full of innocence, playing with dolls. The adult woman is a dominatrix, playing with men. The third Alex, Uncle Alex, is struggling to find meaning in his interactions with either female, his mental health painfully fragile.

Sanders wears a white boxy shirt which seems suitably androgynous, as well as hinting at the simple plain white tunics of the Ancient Grecians and also at the white colour of the padded cells of mental hospitals as depicted in popular culture. This pregnant simplicity is mirrored in Robson Barreto's set design, which consists of a mixture of both harsh lines and curves, alluding to the sharp moments of lucidity and more rambling trains of thought belonging to our narrator. Mountains of white crystals are used to border the space inhabited by Sanders; these resemble salt crystals and are at times reshaped into different patterns and symbols. With salt being a preservative and also a substance that was once deemed valuable and is no longer, you can read everything and nothing into Sanders curling up on the ground, reshaping a barrier of salt around her to draw a partial outline.

Despite the strong visual impact, this isn't a particularly coherent production. There is a lot of repetition in Chris Polites' dialogue and the timeline seems to be non-linear, jumping from one thought to the next and back again. It seems to be a deliberate choice, yet that doesn't make it any more satisfying to follow. Over the 50 minutes, we gain an understanding of the three different individuals called Alex and how their different stories fit together, but we're always far less uncertain of when we actually are in the narrative. We assume what we're watching has already happened and we're just unravelling Alex's memories as he tries to find the words to explain his attempt at self-harming to his perceptive and much younger niece. It's all an ambiguous jumble of recollections in which clarity frustratingly escapes us.

Sanders almost snarls when mimicking Uncle Alex's family describing him as "selfish", a comment which almost shocks us more than his attempt - or possibly attempts - to self-harm. Repeated movements designed by Amy Lawrence take on more significance as we learn more of Alex's experiences. It's as if a fog is lifted as each gesture slowly starts to make sense. As Sanders beats against her chest, the thudding becoming more violet and she begs us to bow our heads, director Justin Murray creates an atmosphere which becomes claustrophobic and upsetting. We still don't fully comprehend Alex's demons, however we know he's overwhelmed by them and we're powerless to intervene, watching a man on the edge railing at us. The performance by Sanders is impressive, with the actress moving fluidly between genders, ages and personalities.

Whilst the answers we want aren't given to us, we walk away with the knowledge that Uncle Alex has descended into darkness without the support of his family and loved ones. Possibly because he doesn't have their support. We start to wonder how different things could be with a bit more empathy in the world, which is a powerful message for Catharsis Theatre to leave us with. Striking, thought-provoking and desperately dark, Purged is an intriguing one-hander heavy with symbolism which forces us to examine some difficult truths.

Purged ran from 5th to 6th February 2017 at the Hope Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)



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