Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Purple Heart, Gate Theatre

Review: Purple Heart, Gate Theatre

Published on Culture Wars, 24.03.2013

Five years before he became the latest American to be anointed by the Royal Court, Bruce Norris marked the invasion of Afghanistan with this pressure-cooked domestic set against a war that ended thirty years earlier: Vietnam. And it’s blisteringly good; better even, I would argue, than his Pulitzer, Tony and Olivier award-winning Clybourne Park.

By picking up where Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun left off, Clybourne Park wears its genius more overtly. Of course, playwrights had written sequels before, but not quite like this; not leaping from a minor character’s offstage actions 50 years ago to the present moment. That’s genuinely inspired. However, Clybourne Park is also structurally schematic: too matchy-matchy and contrived to convince. Almost everything in its first act finds a tidy parallel half a century later. It’s all too forcibly convenient.

Purple Heart has its faults – it’s still over-insistent, thick with symbolism – but it’s far more human than its celebrated successor. Unlike Clybourne Park and its ciphers, Purple Heart works first and foremost at the personal level, where a lopsided family and an outsider battle for territorial control and small victories. Its politics come later: reflected and refracted. While, the household in Clybourne Park too obviously stands for a nation, Purple Heart’s is situated within one. The taut, Pinteresque battle therein tells us everything we need to know about the social headwinds and currents affecting its course. At one level, it’s transfixing. At the other, it’s furious.

Why not address Afghanistan head on? Actually, that’s Purple Heart’s strongest suit. It’s not really about Vietnam or Afghanistan. It’s about war. Vietnam wasn’t pressing by 2002, so we view it abstractly, through the lens of Afghanistan. We seek present-tense application and that allows Norris to reach towards the universal.

That’s actually a remarkably rare thing in theatre. Look at Hair or Journey’s End, both of which are still inextricably entwined with the specific conflicts they address. Even 400 years after it was written, directors still have a job in wrenching Henry V away from Agincourt and beyond St Crispen’s Day.

Actually, The Trojan Women manages it – and, in writing that, it’s apparent that the Gate’s artistic director Christopher Haydon is one step ahead. Like Aeschylus, Norris focuses on the aftermath in Purple Heart. Set a play in wartime and you expose that conflict’s particularities: its preceding politics, front-line conditions and its idiosyncratic horrors. Tune in just afterwards, however, and all wars leave the same things behind: broken homes in broken nations.

Norris takes us into one such shattered household in 1972. Carla (Amelia Lowdell, superb) is an alcoholic war widow living with her adolescent son Thor (Oliver Cooopersmith) and her humourless, hard-of-hearing mother-in-law Grace (Linda Broughton). There’s no milk. All the food has gone off and the stack of consolatory casseroles has run out. When the doorbell rings, they expect another. What they get is a stranger as darkly mysterious as any of Harold Pinter’s: Colonel Purdey, presumed to be a front-line contemporary of Carla’s husband Lars.

Purdey doesn’t give away his secrets. He picks up the information he needs without confirming or denying those presumptions. He never lies, he just never reveals his true purposes. And you know there’s some purpose to his visit. Why else turn up in the middle of the night with a stack doughnuts, despite not having a car? Trevor White plays him like a processing unit: definite, factual, encyclopaedic. At times, left alone in the sitting room, he sits manekin-still for an unsettlingly long period of time.

Meanwhile, Thor has turned back all the clocks. This is the key motif. Norris argues that war is inherently regressive. Vietnam has effectively erased Carla’s marriage and returned her to adolescence. Grace handles her with the sort of patronising ‘I’ll-ask-you-nicely’s generally reserved for surly kids. Carla’s not a mother to Thor, but a playmate, snickering at his practical jokes. Yet still she regresses: asking for a lift, clamouring for a bedtime story and, finally, stood still in a soiled nightie with her arms outstretched like a toddler that needs cleaning up. The war has stuck her life in reverse.

The battle played out is over time. Thor winds the clocks back and Grace and Carla bicker over the hour of day. One is precise, the other vague. “This is not the time,” they yell. The aim is to control the present. War has so ruptured the moment that the generations are in disarray: will it beckon in the future or the past?

Yet, if one expects Thor to represent hope, he does no such thing. His juvenilia is ceaseless and his clock-tampering suggests his own longing for the past, for a time when his father was around. Even an abusive dad beats a dead one. Yet, for all his hateful traits, the war and death have made Lars a hero. It overrides all else. It bulldozes and in laying down the official version it strips Carla of her agency. At one point, she sits with her hands tied. Colonel Purdy fares no better: his right hand is prosthetic, the original lost to a “buried ordnance.” It’s not just them, mind. This is a crocked country, full of canes, cancer and men born with their organs reversed. Each lacks true agency.

Purdey and Clara’s response is nihilism – and who can blame them? All they can do is muddle along, anaesthetize their traumas moment to moment. Here’s the personal crux: do we side with Grace’s sweet-talking sense, reasonable as it sounds, or allow them their rejection of the society that broke them? Does love forbid the tortured alcoholic a drink or ease the pangs by providing it? It’s not Clara’s fault. It’s America’s.

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