Death and the Maiden

Ariel Dorfman
Salberg Studio, Salisbury Playhouse
(2010)

Death and the Maiden production photo

With his experience of life in Argentina and Chile, it is perhaps not surprising that Ariel Dorfman, the writer of Death and the Maiden, should be a fervent human rights activist.

This viewpoint rules the play with a rod of steel - arguably rather more so than is good for it since we, the audience is attacked from start to finish with an argument most of us are surely ready to accept, to begin with. There may be the odd Pinochet supporter here and there but I doubt there are many around these parts with much time for Argentina's woeful adventure in the Falklands.

Moreover, this is a three character play more suitable for radio than for the stage, which provides added challenge for the three actors, in this case Ruth Gemmell (Paulina), David Michaels (Gerardo) and Sean Campion (Roberto).

Comparisons in these circumstances are, I know, invidious. Nevertheless, with a play like this I cannot resist thoughts of the powerful personae of Juliet Stevenson, Bill Paterson and Michael Byrne.

Tightly directed by Patricia Benecke, with sympathetic design by Philip Wilson, the production opens promisingly with tide washing over the beach, a car turning into the drive and voices outside the front door. In fact, it could almost be the opening scene of a Francis Durbridge thriller - excellent radio fare indeed.

However, we are quickly into the meat with Paulina and Gerardo arguing over the President's offer to the lawyer of a post in the new government. And there is early reference to Paulina's illness.

What emerges from hereon is the story of persecution by the former dictatorship and the trial, if it can be called that, of one of the leading figures in that dictatorship.

What we do not see clearly set out in this production is the dilemma of lawyer Gerardo: to stand up for his wife or to fight for the right to justice of a possibly innocent man?

The pistol is pointed at the doctor for rather longer than is necessary - not good for radio this - and Paulina is for the most part rather more sympathetic a character than her personal experiences would have her be.

Death and the Maiden is of course the title of a quartet by Schubert, redolent of the music at Auschwitz.

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole