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Death and the Maiden

Ariel Dorfman
Harold Pinter Theatre
(2011)

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Death and the Maiden is one of the great plays of the late 20th Century. Quite what it cost Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman to write a work about torture in an unnamed country, we will probably never know.

Like his compatriots behind the Iron Curtain, the playwright and novelist thrived artistically in a milieu that threw up moral dilemmas and personal anger on a constant basis, before moving into exile.

There is some irony that this portrayal of totalitarian torture should be the first play to open at the newly-named Harold Pinter Theatre (formerly the Comedy). If any other writer could have penned this play it is the late master of menacing political drama.

Dorfman's most famous and probably best play addresses major issues from the perspective of Paulina Escobar, a woman who fifteen years earlier in 1975 was arrested as a freedom fighter. The new military regime did not favour dissenters and gave torturers free rein to enjoy themselves.

In the case of this plucky little lady, played by multi-award winning screen favourite Thandie Newton, the degradation was validated by a Doctor, whom she never laid eyes on. He aided the torturers, informing them how far they could go, and took hideous liberties for his own macabre pleasure.

The catalyst for Paulina's regression to fear and desire for revenge arrives when her husband, Tom Goodman-Hill's Gerardo, a newly-appointed member of a truth and reconciliation commission, is rescued from a flat tyre by a Good Samaritan, Doctor Roberto Miranda.

Though blindfolded throughout her ordeal, Paulina believes that she recognises his voice, the feel of his skin and smell as those of her tormentor. This impression is compounded by a cassette taken from his car relaying the tortuous strains of Schubert's evocative, eponymous quartet.

She becomes feral with a gun to instil fear and spends much of the 100 minutes dealing out to her supposed torturer a dose of the medicine that he had inflicted on her.

Gerardo is initially sceptical but, somewhat out of character undergoes a sea change, much to the discomfiture of Roberto the Doctor.

The tension increases as Dorfman throws in ever greater numbers of moral questions for torturer, victim and moral guardian in a drama that epitomises the problems that the end of this kind of brutal political regime will inevitably leave unresolved once democracy returns.

In creating this short play, the writer not only makes us consider questions about crime and punishment but also issues of identity and certainty.

Jeremy Herrin and his cast have a lot to live up to, as both Lindsay Posner's original cast with unforgettable performances from Juliet Stevenson and Bill Paterson and Roman Polanski's movie version (now unbelievably only available in this country on a US import DVD) with Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley to compete with.

He tries to turn the political parable into something more with an opening that could have been borrowed from any one of innumerable screen thrillers

Thandie Newton took time to settle on her long-delayed London stage debut and does not have great stage presence but eventually did the part of Paulina reasonable justice and was clearly delighted and relieved at the end of opening night.

Tom Goodman-Hill makes Gerardo rather priggish but convinces once the human rights lawyer is swept up by his wife's obsession.

Perhaps the most distinguished performance comes from Anthony Calf, who overcomes the tight ropes and gag to bear comparison with Ben Kingsley in the difficult supporting role of the embodiment of evil - or innocence.

Death and the Maiden is a brilliant and important play that is as almost relevant today as it was at the time of its creation. As such, it should be compulsory viewing.

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Reviewer: Philip Fisher