The Lover/The Collection
Purgatorio. Hardly a seductive title and I confess it was curiosity rather than enthusiasm that dragged me to the Arcola in Hackney to see how Ariel Dorfman (best known for his 1992 play Death and the Maiden) had handled the Medea myth. His update transplants the characters to a therapy unit and the play opens with Medea under analysis describing in lacerating detail how she killed her children. Confusingly, her cell is furnished with a kitchen knife which she occasionally brandishes in the analyst’s face. More confusingly, he shrugs the threat aside as if she were waving a lollipop at him. Then the roles are reversed. Medea becomes the shrink and Jason becomes the shrunk and she subjects him to a very cross cross-examination. Therapist Medea seems even more aggressive than murderess Medea and for much of the time it’s unclear whether the characters realise they’re interrogating their former partners. That’s fine. All part of the tease.
Less fine is the decision of the director, Daniele Guerra, to make the actors unleash their feelings rather than suggest them. Grief is the hardest emotion to express theatrically because it seems to call for the most theatricality. Cascades of tears, knotted eyebrows, twining forearms, heaving shoulders and torsos sliding earthwards, all the predictable fare from the RADA larder are put on display and all fail to move us. In the closing stages both actors succumb to hysterics and shriek at each other like strimmers. Always a bad moment when actors turn up the amps to 11. The result is boredom and disengagement. To uncover every inch of sentiment leaves the audience with no space to imagine what else the character may be suffering and reduces spectators to passive dullard witnesses.