5pound theatre bring their show Purgatorio to the Paddington substation, providing the Brisbane Anywhere festival with a production that engages it audience beyond the text’s twist on a recognisable myth. After learning of the show’s critically acclaimed seasons in Melbourne and an award nomination in Perth, I was eager to see how it would size up to the a Brisbane audience in such an unpredictable festival.

Purgatorio is a fusion of recognisable stories and characters amongst unexpected settings, scenarios and secrets. Playwright Ariel Dorfmann interweaves modern language with appropriate poetic verse to create a story about two tortured souls within waiting zone of sorts. This waiting zone, Purgatorio, promises to purge sin before entering the afterlife. The show’s essence is based around the use of classic Greek Tragedy and medieval concepts of human existence and our afterlife that follows.

The two focal characters of the show, Man (Jason Cavanagh) and Woman (Freya Pragt), are separated by a black mesh curtain that divides the performance space in half. Man stands on one side, Woman on the other, and the onlooking audience is split in two and separated from each other in a pre-planned seating allocation. By splitting the seating in half the audience inhabit either side of the space just as the actors do, resulting in a two-sided segregation of perspectives and interactions.

The story takes place through a sequence of psychoanalytic interrogations that bare the souls of both the Man and Woman, as well as the mental state of their ‘case manager’ (for want of a better title for what is an ambiguous role). As these sequences progress, the two actors swap from being the focus of the interrogations as Man or Woman, to adorning a large black coat to interrogate the other in a separate scene, room, and character.

As the interactions continue and the dynamics become slightly less alienating, it is evident that the male interrogator thinks he knows the right questions, and the female interrogator thinks she can predict the answers. On the other end are the tormented beings that must endure the interrogations immediately after escaping a life that ended in heartbreak, torture and hatred. The interrogations test both the Man and Woman’s endurance by testing them emotionally, physically and mentally. They are subjected to constant monitoring and questioning, and forced to relive their motivations and mistakes during life, in order to gain a chance to repent from their sinful pasts. Through his work, Dorfman not only analyses the relationship between two tragic lovers in multiple ways, he also questions whether an external and unidentifiable being determines our destination in the afterlife, or if we determine our own through truth and acceptance.

With the audience split in two, they are able to take on the role of the monitor that the characters reference, examining and empathising both characters with little ability to judge. The audience’s only true influence is the aforementioned seating arrangements, and more importantly, the lighting design. The lighting design is aesthetically pleasing, however it is more intricate than mere colour and warmth. The lighting enhances the stage setup by creating a fog or obstruction to the audience and actor’s vision. Blue states fill the space of the interrogator, and stark white light shines onto the Man or Woman while they struggle through their time at Purgatorio. The sound design is equally as effective, with variations of low vibrations and high pitched strains intensifying moments of tension, truth or terror.

Director Celeste Cody finds the beautiful and harrowing within language that is both heartbreaking and hard to hear. There is an intricacy in the audience’s exclusive perspective, particularly in the moments when the characters are unable to see one another, therefore only giving the audience the full picture. Despite this predominant exposure to both of the characters and their interrogators, the show maintains its mystery, ambiguity and delicate balance beautifully. Pragt and Cavanagh are flawless in their portrayals of both of their roles within the show. They play off each other, the space, and their audiences well, always ensuring that both sides of the story is told, and that both sides of the audience are given something to absorb.

The performers, director and design team, take a show with both an ambiguous time and location, and a concept that is a battle to cover, and present it with an intricacy and elegance. I am left wishing the season was longer so I could come and explore the world all over again.

– Written by Rhumer Diball May 21st 2016


THURS 19 – SAT 21 MAY, 2016. 



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