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Visual arts >

Purgatory is other people

by Michael Caines

APART from anything else, Ariel Dorfman’s new play, Purgatorio, echoes his most famous work, Death and the Maiden, in that it concerns the traumatic, disputed past between a man and a woman. One was the other’s torturer, the vile instrument of the state brought to bear on her dissident’s body — and unsurprisingly this is something that he would prefer to forget.

Denial and rewriting of personal history likewise lie at the heart of Purgatorio, which the playwright has spoken of as a sequel to his 1991 play, and also as the second part in a trilogy on this serious subject.

In this instance, however, the job of bringing a miscreant to get his (or her) story straight could take longer than a single evening, as it does in Death and the Maiden: the painful business of redemption by confession, which is what is on offer in Purgatorio, could take for ever.

It is a far cry from the essential optimism suggested in Dante’s vision of the “second kingdom”, where (in C. H. Sisson’s translation) “the human spirit cures itself, And becomes fit to leap up into heaven”. Here, by contrast, spirits are desperate to “go back” and sample more of life.

Until they are ready to do that, they must languish in a white room, plainly furnished with a table, a bed, and a chair. At the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, its inhabitants are a man (Patrick Baladi) and a woman (Adjoa Andoh), their props a briefcase, some paperwork, and a knife. At first, the man interrogates the woman, coaxing her towards a full admission of guilt for her terrible actions in life, of which the knife is a sharp reminder. Then they change places, the man’s story initially providing a smooth counterpart to the woman’s, only to break down as the scene progresses.

A CCTV camera keeps a close watch on proceedings. For whose benefit, it would seem to remind both interlocutors, is this approach to truth and repentance being enacted? Is this merely a spectator sport? Is some sort of race under way? (The man takes a certain undisguised pride in learning that he may have broken the record for such a rehabilitation.)

Reviews will tell you, or it may be guessed from what the characters have to say about their past lives, that the man is Jason and the woman is Medea. But it seems more significant that Dorfman strips them of these classical identities, and leaves them to one another, continuously to fight out their legacy and their legend. If hell is other people, then so, too, is purgatory.

Short on humour, Purgatorio is at least short on minutes as well, being, at 75 minutes, a dash through a scenario that in fact has little to offer by way of dramatic interest. Baladi and Andoh make a fine pair of sinners — both are familiar television faces, though very different in their style of performance — and the director, Daniele Guerra, does what is possible to give the audience the temporary impression of being trapped with them in eternity as well.

Yet, if there is an ultimate message to this play, it seems to be plainly that redemption is not an easy business when you have done wrong and cannot fully admit it, even to save yourself (surely not the highest motive, but the only one that Dorfman offers). Purgatorio will be seen beyond Dalston — it has already been produced several times over in the United States — though it is difficult to imagine it touching the same harsh chord that Death and the Maiden did.

At the Arcola Theatre, 27 Arcola Street, London E8, until 9 February. Box office 020 7503 1646

www.arcolatheatre.com

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