Robert Chuter

Purgatorio is like a poetic nightmare - at once befuddling, disturbing, thrilling and haunting.

Image by Fiona Spitzkowski.  

It is certainly a great way to build suspense. 

After the audience has snuck like cultural vagabonds down the alleyway alongside The Owl and the Pussycat, give them a set of cards with figures drawn on them - one male, the other female. Depending which gender card you are dealt, the audience is split in two groups - half sitting with ‘him’ and the other with ‘her’. It is fitting as the characters are identified only as ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ but, brush up on a certain Greek tragedy before you come, and it will soon become clear who their identities really are.


The play, (by Death and the Maiden scribe, Ariel Dorfman), places the two characters together in a sort of twisted, lawyer/defendant/therapist/patient relationship in purgatory. Mainly fuelled by suggestion rather than exposition, it seems this is how the souls earn brownie points to get back to earth in another form - reincarnation has to be earned by ‘paying it forward’, helping burned souls heal their previous life wounds. When our ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ come together, (disguising their identities from one another), it sets them up for a climax that is both showdown and exorcism. It is a complex scenario.

Dorfman's dialogue is distinctive and precise, bearing the same operatic grandness that made Death and the Maiden such a success. It is no less effective here, even when playing in an entirely different style. One of Dorfman's great strengths is his ability to play with structure and his experimentation here keeps one guessing in a less traditional way - making us wonder less ‘what's going to happen?’ to ‘is what's going on, what I really think is going on?’ It's a disarming gift. (Dorfman has always quoted Harold Pinter as a major influence and it is most clear here). 

Directed with precision and imagination by the talented Celeste Cody and featuring an elegiac soundscape by Tom Pitts (from the band The Harlots), this is a production fuelled by mystery, challenging us to look deeper at the terrifying contradictions that lie at the heart of a passionate marriage that has forced one party to commit a horrid crime of retribution and jealousy. Although it maintains a very dark tone, it never quite falls into the trap of becoming weary, toeing the line with skill.

With various magic productions under her belt, Cody has developed a flair for the surprising. Although she keeps the tricks to a minimum (well, one to be precise), her brilliant reveals have always been a fun trademark. Here, she uses the entire set piece as her magic hat with the actors and audience her willing rabbits. The gendered halves of the stage are separated by a transparent scrim which has the effect of portraying the characters as if they are in a glass-like prison visiting room.

Prolific lighting designer Jason Bovaird's wonderful design swings from eerie and subtle to blankets of light bringing up the two halves of the stage, providing an expressionistic and intriguing feel that never feels jerky in its transitions. It suggests that this is hell comprising not other people, but oneself. It is an evocative touch to a tumultuous relationship where both subjects are guilty of different crimes but their punishments are cruelly the same.

Performances are both very strong with Freya Pragt shining particularly bright. She delivers a performance that reeks with subtly even as she swings from pain and introversion to defiance, together with a great performance from Jason Cavanagh. 

Purgatorio is like a poetic nightmare - at once befuddling, disturbing, thrilling and haunting, ensuring that this collaboration between Attic Erratic and 5 Pound theatre complements both companies greatest strengths.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


Written by Ariel Dorfman
Directed by Celeste Cody
Music/Soundscape by Tom Pitts
Lighting Designer: Jason Bovaird
Produced by Jason Cavanagh
Cast: Freya Pragt & Jason Cavanagh 

The Owl and the Pussycat , 34 Swan Street, Richmond
23 July – 2 August 

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Robert Chuter is a Melbourne theatre and film director and who has given audiences over 250 +complex, controversial and visually rich productions to date. His debut feature, The Dream Children, was released internationally in 2015.