Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Theatre Review : Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfmann - Pinter Theatre (Dir Jeremy Herrin 28/11/11)

Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfmann wrote Death and the Maiden as several South American states were emerging from the shadow of the brutal military dictatorships of the 1970s and 80s. As the Arab Spring takes hold, and the headquarters of the Secret Police are swept open in Tripoli and Cairo, Dorfmann’s play is frighteningly relevant. Sadly, it will probably continue to be so.

In an unnamed South American state, Gerardo Escobar is a liberal Civil Rights Lawyer, who has just been nominated to a Truth-and-Reconciliation  commission following the re-establishment of democracy. Paulina Salas is his wife - beautiful, intelligent, yet scarred by her torture and rape at the hands of the military during the dictatorship. She is dismayed to hear that Gerardo’s commission will investigate only those who have died, denying her the opportunity of some form of catharsis.

Gerardo is visited by a stranger,  a doctor called Roberto Miranda who has stopped to help him on the road. Paulina believes she has heard his voice before, as the doctor who oversaw her torture and rape. She captures Roberto at gunpoint, ties him up and threatens to kill him in order to force him to confess his crimes, whilst her husband argues that such actions will only perpetuate the cycle of violence in the country. As Paulina’s story is told, pieces of information emerge, but what is true and what has Roberto made up in order to secure his release?

This is a complex, intense work, better suited to a small studio such as the Theatre Upstairs where it was first performed than the Edwardian Pinter Theatre, although it is appropriate that such a work should grace the stage which bears Harold Pinter’s name. Perceptions of the characters shift throughout – Gerardo’s liberal values are challenged when he doubts Roberto’s innocence, Paulina’s pain is undoubted, but is this the only way in which she can achieve release? And is Roberto as he says an innocent man? But why does he have a tape of Death and the Maiden in his car, the music played by the Doctor who tortured Paulina?

Both Tom Goodman-Hill and Anthony Calf give powerful, nuanced perfomances as Gerardo and Roberto respectively. But this play needs at its centre someone who can reveal the pain and despair that Paulina has carried for 18 years, they must be capable of opening up their soul. Thandie Newton as Paulina is very good but she doesn’t really have the depths that this part requires. She is too pretty, too well manicured. Her hair stays in place, her voice doesn’t crack from pain, you just aren’t convinced that she has suffered as she describes. And without that necessary pain at its heart, the play loses its undoubted power (though that is not helped by a half-empty house and an unnecessary tension-killing interval). Which is unfortunate, as this production is probably the most thoughtful and relevant piece of theatre currently showing in a dismal West End.

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