Finland’s best selling novelist writes a play about Estonia’s painful past
On June 9th, Scena Theater – which bills itself as “Washington’s International Theater” – will host a regional premier of Sofi Oksanen’s Purge. The play, according to Scena artistic director Robert McNamara, “is not for the faint-of-heart, but for those who feel that the theatre is an extraordinary place to experience strong emotions.”Set in a newly independent Estonia in 1992, Purge explores the intertwined fates of Aliide, an elderly Estonian widow reviled for her communist past, and Zara, a victim of sexual trafficking who has escaped from her Russian mafia handlers in faraway Vladivostok and landed ragged and desperate on Aliide’s doorstep. The story lurches back and forth between past and present, slowly unraveling a tale that touches on the most painful aspects of the Soviet occupation of Estonia. Through Aliide’s personal history, we learn of both the resistance to and the collusion with Soviet rule that turned so many Estonians against each other, rending apart families in the process.
In modern Estonia, a relatively prosperous country bent on integrating itself with the rest of Europe, it may be easy to overlook the remnants of this painful history. But they remain. “Collaboration was a traumatic experience,” says Estonian expert Sirje Kiin. “Almost every family had at least one communist there… All these painful histories are still there in every family history and memory. But we never had a civil war, which means all hidden feelings are still deep down there.”
More darkly still, Purge uncovers how the brutal use of sexual violence, both as a tool of economic exploitation and political repression, exacerbated the process of division and left victims languishing in their own lonely torments. Kiin says that Soviet repression ensured that such issues never received the attention they might have deserved, but “after liberation all those issues came out into the daylight as a big surprise.”
Indeed, as the play develops backward from its beginnings in Estonia’s emancipation, the stories of Aliide and Zara wind ever more closely toward one another, neatly weaving together the backdrop of a political climate that encouraged collaboration and betrayal with the intensely personal – and disturbing – experience of grotesque sexual violence. But the connections between the characters, found both in their personal lives and in their shared memories of sexual torment, ultimately bend toward redemption.
Oksanen, a Finnish-born novelist and playwright of Estonian descent, has written extensively on the subjects of gender, sexuality, and sexual violence, pioneering stark explorations of the linkages among them. She says she was inspired to write Purge when she learned about the now infamous use of rape and sexual torture in the Balkan wars of the early 1990s. “There was a tremendous frustration that in the middle of Europe there were concentration camps where rape was practiced in the 1990s,” she says. “That is why I had to write something about it. It became a play, because the topic is so closely linked with shame – the shame of the look in a person’s face – and as the theatre involves a collective facial expression, it seemed necessary for it to be in the theatre.”
Drawing on her own Estonian heritage and fascination with the country’s history, she mediates this frustration through Purge, which she also turned into a novel in 2008. It quickly became a best seller and went on to win numerous European Book Prizes.
The play, the first among Oksanen’s catalogue to be translated into English, made its well-received U.S. debut in New York’s experimental La Mama Theater. But Scena artistic director Robert McNamara is keen to chart his own course on his theater’s production. He suggests that his company’s work on Purge “amounts to a first production of a play in the USA from a foreign culture,” so the challenge “is always of finding a balance between what is unknown and familiar to an American audience.” Hence, McNamara finds it most useful simply to embrace head-on the substance of the work, which is compelling and unsettling enough to demand an open-minded approach. “I don’t really know what they did in New York at La Mama,” he says, “but we approached it very much like it was the fabric of peoples’ lives in a situation that was in extremis.”
McNamara recommends the play for “audiences that are not afraid of a gripping and vital theatre experience” and those “who are bored with the usual DC summer fare of musicals and comedies that drone on and on.” He adds, “It is also a voice from an emerging author not known so much in the United States,” which “fulfills a part of Scena’s mission to bring the best in international theatre to Washington, DC and the United States.”
Speaking both to Scena’s international ambitions and to Oksanen’s background, the June 9th event will be attended by representatives from the Estonian and Finnish embassies. One hopes they are not among the faint-of-heart.
Scena Theatre’s production of Purge features Kerry Waters, Eric Lucas, Colleen Delany, Irina Koval, Lee Ordeman, Armand Sindoni and Stas Wronka. It runs thru July 3, 2011 at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H Street NE, Washington, DC.
Sofi Oksanen Web site