The unheralded courage of actors in rehearsal


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.

Author Ariel Dorfman discusses the origins of ‘Purgatorio’

Purgatorio is a pivotal work for me. Although it takes up many of the themes that have been central to my previous work (the dilemmas of forgiveness and retribution, the uncertainty of memory, the search for some ray of hope in times of terror and betrayal, the problem of identity in a world of false fundamentalisms), those themes were explored primarily in a historical moment and brought into focus by some primeval form of violence (torture in Death and the Maiden, censorship in Reader, disappearances in Widows, an array of forms of repression in Voices from Beyond the Dark: the Speak Truth to Power play), it is in Purgatorio that I plunge for the first time into the naked (and masked, of course) human relations without an immediate political context.

In that sense, it is a play that asks us all questions about redemption and myth and above all if it is possible for love to prevail when terrible things have been done to us and, far too often, by us.

Everything I have written since then has deepened this exploration.

Now as to the origin of that story, at first I wasn’t sure where the confrontation between that man and that woman happened, but slowly realized that it was the afterlife, and that they needed each other’s absolution to be reincarnated or simply to be purged of what they had done. Although the place I have imagined is not quite the Christian Purgatory, and certainly not Dantesque, inasmuch as there seems to be no God who can deliver these two from each other (in fact, it seems to echo Buddhism, if anything at all), I loved the idea of calling it Purgatorio, also a name that works in many languages, another thing I am fascinated with as a bilingual author.

And is going to appear, after all, in a multilingual country, such as South Africa, a land close to my heart and also experiencing the problems of damage and reconciliation between former enemies that is central to the play. And because this work has echoes about colonialism, about men who come from afar to a land that is not theirs and the women who receive them and cross over to the foreign culture only to then be betrayed by their invader/lovers, because there are hints that they belong to two different races, this might resonate in your country in ways that could be singular.

Though, of course, finally, what matters is not any political message embedded in the depths of Purgatorio, but that the audience empathize with the two characters, in turn, and then together. The play, after all, really transpires in the mutual mind of them both – they are as joined as a Moebius Strip, looping into each other, entangled in ways that we all are with those we love (and also, paradoxically, with those we hate), so we cannot be with one without being with the other, until we all reach what I hope is a satisfying finale to this odyssey of self-discovery.