Purgatory is a temporal noun. There are no clocks in the Inferno or in Paradise—there is no time in eternity. But Purgatory is immanently ephemeral. At least, that’s how Dante would have it. Purgatory is also theatre. It is a morality play writ large, where the actors are sinners and the curtain call is the expurgation of sin.

Romeo Castellucci’s staging of Purgatorio, commissioned by the Festival d’Avignon, begins with a quotidian scene of bourgeois domesticity. The set is an expansive, hyperrealist snapshot of refined 1970s living—dark wood, muted tones, recessed lighting. In it, a boy dangles his feet at a table and a woman washes dishes. It is, by every appearance, a literal kitchen-sink drama that we are witnessing. But Castellucci establishes these references, these codes of theatrical familiarity only to derail our expectations. Like Michael Haneke in The Seventh Continent, Castellucci begins by feeding us these images of habit without the anchors of narrative or character. The mundane actions and props of life are thereby removed from their context and float in front of us as anonymous signifiers, suggesting the illusiveness of this existence. Purgatory is, after all, theatre–the replaying, in real time, of a misjudged life.

The woman, a screen tells us, is called “First Star”; the boy is called “Second Star”. When they speak to each other, a screen presents their words just before the actors vocalise them and the dialogue is drawn out by silences, as though the characters were not so much conversing but simply passing the time. And time does pass. The first act of Purgatorio is a blatant invocation of time as punishment—weary festival-goers would have been forgiven for resting their eyes a little. The discrepancy in timing between the surtitles and the text is no technical hitch, but rather a deliberate ploy to disrupt the action by anticipating it with text. Castellucci thereby de-energises the dramatic tension, distances the characters from one another and asserts a painterly torpor on the space. This inertia has strange effects, particularly on time, the measurement of which is always a measure of movement. With no reference points of action, the audience’s sense of time is dislodged and what might have been only twenty minutes feels instead like an hour.

With all this inaction, what does the audience desire at this point, what does it expect? It wants a change and it expects action. Castellucci delivers. Having apparently returned from a day at the office, a man (“Third Star”) has entered the domestic scene. He does not touch the food his wife presents him with, but dons a cowboy hat and takes his young son upstairs. The stage is emptied of actors but slowly, discomfortingly one hears the brute grunts of the father and the weeping pain of the son from offstage. The audience has been given the drama and action they craved in the form of a torturous and prolonged rape. So, the initial stretching of the audience’s patience is not done merely to punish but also to disturb. Just as sinners would pass through the seven stages of Purgatory to be cleansed, Castellucci puts us through these early tests of our own theatrical sins of expectation.

Having, at first, exasperated the audience and having then slapped them in the face with their own hand, Castellucci changes gears once more. The father eventually returns to the stage in a somewhat dishevelled manner and is joined soon after by the boy, who bears no tangible sign of mistreatment. Strangely, the boy consoles the man with the words, “Ne t’inquiète pas, tout est fini.” (“Don’t worry, it’s all over.”) It acts as a pardoning and, thus, an inversion of the power structure we expect.

This inversion is echoed in the final act, when two different actors come on in the costumes of the father and son. The father is now a shorter, slighter man and played by an actor (Juri Roverato) who suffers from severe spastic tetraplegia. On the other hand, the boy is now a towering two metres tall. The father begins a sort of fitful dance that the son echoes until his body is totally at the mercy of the convulsions. In front of this action, a clear glass circle hangs spinning as black paint is squirted onto its surface by automated jets. The resulting web of interweaving spirals on the glass is beautiful to the point of distraction, but beneath the blackened circle that hovers in the space, the son continues to unceasingly jar his body against the floor. A realisation soon dawns: it’s not all over after all.

This article originally appeared in print in RealTime 87, October-November, 2008, page 4, and is reproduced with permission.