This is the reason fringe theatre exists: to stimulate, to educate, and to challenge its audience. Purged is a bold and daring piece about the very real challenges of communication in the midst of a mental health crisis. Written by Chris Polites, directed by Justin Murray, and performed by Orla Sanders, it delicately and powerfully explores the internal and external struggles that so many people face daily. No-one can claim they know all there is to know about mental health. Helping and supporting those who are in need is a difficult task both for those around them and the affected individuals themselves. Purged is undoubtedly a challenge to the audience, but it is a wakeup call which shouldn’t be ignored.
Purged opens with our main character sat in a black square, surrounded by white confetti. White lines form a box around the performer, Orla Sanders, who is alone in the dark. She addresses the audience in the second person. In her own words, you are Alex; everyone in the room is Alex. You are twenty-nine years old and a few weeks ago you attempted to stay twenty-nine forever. For a moment, some members of the audience think this is a joke and a tiny chuckle is quickly stifled when the meaning of this is properly realised. The usage of the pronoun “you” is clever: The directness of Sanders’ performance blows any haziness from the audience’s eyes and keeps them fully focused on the performance.
She stands hesitantly on the edge of her white lined box before anxiously creeping over to approach the audience to tell them directly, face to face, that they are Alex too. This does not relent. Alex is never referred to as he or in any other terms but as “you”. Sanders weaves your story. Alex tried to kill himself and his family know this. His brother simply can’t communicate to him about it and they argue, they fight and throw insults. However, Alex has a niece, also called Alex, who is a small bundle of joy in your life. Sanders makes it achingly real the sense of both happiness and sadness when little Alex talks to you. She knows what happened but doesn’t really understand; no-one around you really does. Then there is a final Alex, an individual that you meet in a club and pursue begin a sadomasochistic relationship with. It is a story of contrasts, of joy and pain. Black and white. Life and death.
Sanders narrates your/Alex’s story, the one where you are putting the pieces of yourself back together. You fight with your family, you find yourself a girlfriend – another person called Alex. That person chooses to end their life, and succeeds, unlike when you attempted previously. It is an incredibly heavy and bleak story, but there remains some silver lining, and there is present an overwhelming joy in life despite it being contrasted by suffering and struggle. Alex can’t really seem to portray the full nature of who he is to anyone. To his niece, he is fun Uncle Alex. To his brother, he is a selfish and deranged person. Alex can’t really decide what exactly he is to himself. There is a gorgeous sequence where Sanders (as always sticking to talking about “you”) describes how one day a crow nested behind your eyes. Every day, with every pain and grievance, the blackness fills up inside your head and before you knew it there was a murder behind your eyes. It is beautifully written and delicately spoken. The struggle again is one of someone trapped in themselves. Alex cannot relate to the people around him, he is one-dimensional to everyone he knows and totally formless to himself.
The story is told in highly symbolic terms. Sanders has a series of movements that are repeated throughout the piece, transitioning us throughout the timeline of Alex’s story. She pulls an invisible thread from her wrist and draws it across her body. Her finger will then select a point in the invisible line which represents where we are in the story. She breaks between narrating and acting as Alex personally through beating her own chest. Her fingers often hold up the signs for one, two or three. Whilst this is frankly rather confusing for a majority of the play, its meaning unfolds as we reach the end and see the initial suicide attempt from Alex. The beats of the chest are heartbeats, the sounds that Alex listened to after he attempted to end his life, and the finger gestures refer to the significance and themes of the multiple Alexes of the story. Alex, the niece, and the girlfriend our protagonist meets in a club. You are Alex one; the niece is Alex two. Alex two represents the joy in your life, a smiley barrage of jokes and innocence. Alex three, the girlfriend, is the pain. Not necessarily a bad pain however. The reason you gravitated towards Alex three is due to their predilection for BDSM. You found yourself somewhat comforted by embracing feeling, specifically what pain feels like and letting yourself weep. The great swellings of pain and joy throughout the story are symbolised so delicately by a bowed head and a raised hand, showing a two or a three. These gestures and symbols are frequent and reoccurring throughout the show, which sometimes bemuses more than it may intend as their meaning unfolds gradually. Once you reach the final few moments of the play and these things become apparent, many of the movements Sanders employs finally make sense.
Purged is ultimately a human story. There are moments of brevity in the darkness, jokes that Alex tells himself when his brother tells him he was selfish for trying to kill himself. The idea of suicide as selfish brings him out into a fit of laughter. However, with every moment of lightness it is followed by a punch in the gut from reality. The writing from Chris Polites is powerfully evocative, including sequences from describing cigarette buds left in as fallen soldiers leaning upon each other on a battlefield, to monologues about internal battles as warped games of chess where the rules have been broken and the black pieces swarm over the board. In terms of the use of colours (or lack thereof), contrasting black and white on the stage is constant. Intriguingly, pain is referred to as a white flash, almost cleansing and pure. The striking metaphors and clever wordplay work wonders in making Alex an entirely believable person and their story so achingly real. It is an unrelenting scrape across the chalkboard of your average thoughts. It highlights how these issues cannot be ignored and how they affect so many people. Purged is difficult to watch, but that is what makes it so vital to see.