Rehearsals for Ariel Dorfman’s Purgatorio are in full swing at the Baxter Theatre, and have been for the last few weeks. Actually, it’s been a full month. A full month of 7+ hours every day where two actors, Terry Norton and Dawid Minnaar, stand alone on the stage and grapple with some of the most intense and emotional concepts ever committed to script, by the incomparable Ariel Dorfman.
For those of us on the periphery looking in, it’s been an education in the theatre arts, and so revealing as to what it takes to bring a work of this nature to the stage. We know about the skill and craft of actors, but what about the courage?
The bravery of soldiers, policemen, firemen is well documented and celebrated around the world. Everyone can relate to, or at least admire, the courage required to stand in the face of danger and do what needs to be done for the sake of a higher cause. But who ever thinks about what is required of two actors to delve into the blackest parts of their soul and bring to the surface their darkest impulses, their deepest fears? Every day they deliver ideas. statements and actions which leave an audience reeling, emotionally fragile and rubbed raw by what they witness on the stage.
What does it take to go to work every single day and conjure up those demons? One can barely imagine.
Both Norton and Minaar admit that Purgatorio is probably the hardest thing they have ever done on stage. It’s a relentless text, a juggernaut of emotion that is spellbinding…and horrifying. Gradually, the audience comes to understand the complete nightmare of the situation that these two people are confronting, and the full horror of the actions that have placed them in this place of purgatory.
It’s never over-wrought, or manipulative. It is what it is. The dark night of the soul. And for the actors it has to be a monumental effort of will, with only each other and their small team around them, to bring these characters to life day in and day out.
I won’t give away the story here right now. But it’s loosely based on the ancient text of Jason and Medea, so murder, revenge, infanticide, and suicide is never far from the action. For the actors to be able to go to those places, day in and day out, in front of an appreciative audience is one thing. There is an acknowledgement at the end of the show. But to stand in a cold, airless rehearsal room and confront your very own heart of darkness is truly an act of bravery, and a sacrifice of the highest order.
Audiences who come to Purgatorio are witnessing some of the bravest, most committed work that has been put onto a South African stage for a long, long time. There is an emotional, intellectual sacrfice that these actors have made which will hopefully be acknowledged when the curtain goes up on this spellbinding production.