The world premier for this Ariel Dorfman’s play was at the Royal Court in London almost ten years ago. Coincidentally, a decade later, Royal Court’s Associate Director, Jeremy Herrin, stages his revival at the Harold Pinter Theatre (previously known as Comedy Theatre). I met the lovely and charming Mr Herrin at the Globe Theatre where I was mesmerised by his Much Ado About Nothing and warmly congratulated him on his splendid production. Had I seen him last night, which was the opening night for Death and the Maiden, I would have done the same.
Set in a unnamed Latin American country, Ariel Dorfman’s play is about Paulina who believes that Dr Miranda, a guest invited to stay the night by her husband Gerardo, is the very same man who raped and tortured her 15 years ago. She injures Dr Miranda, ties him up, gags him and threatens him with a gun. Unless he confesses to the hideous crimes she accuses him of, she tells him that she will kill him. This incident takes place in a country, which after overthrowing a dictator, is coming to terms with some of the atrocities that took place under the dictatorship and, to this effect, the new President asks Gerardo, a human rights lawyer, to run a trial to bring the wrongdoers to justice.
From the start to the finish, this play is wonderfully ambiguous. Is Dr Miranda the ghastly man who committed these horrific crimes? Did he give her electric current shocks while he raped her, all the while listening to Schubert’s quartet playing in the background? Is Paulina right? Or has she been so traumatised by her ordeal at the hands of her captors that she has become sick and paranoid? Does her husband want to stop her from killing Dr Miranda because he believes that only a legal process can mete out the appropriate punishment? Or is he intent on carving out a niche for himself under the new regime? And, more importantly, can a legal process do the right thing for torture victims?
The play’s themes are particularly salient in the whole Middle East / North Africa uprising context. While no one can or should forgive a torturer, this play gives you a glimpse of the psychology which turns people agnostic and immune to vile torture tactics. In this respect, I was reminded of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s award-winning play, Lidless which I saw earlier this year. And just like Lidless, this play leaves it to the audience to make their own minds up.
As there is a husband and wife pair in this play with their own marital issues, this could easily have turned into a domestic drama punctuated with gender jokes. It is much credit to Jeremy Herrin that a powerful play isn’t reduced to a domestic affair and his stage directions ensure that all three characters can’t be easily pigeonholed. Even Paulina’s gagging of Dr Miranda, a simple act in itself, invites laughter, bewilderment and suspicion in equal measure.
Making her West End debut, Thandie Newton, as Paulina, tackles the gamut of emotions well enough. Last night, Ms Newton fluffed some of her lines, which must be down to first night jitters, but with enough time, I hope she develops a full command of her role. A character as demanding as Paulina’s needs a powerful performance every night; otherwise the play is essentially damaged. Tom Goodman-Hill as Gerardo, on the other hand, is absolutely brilliant. He makes it deceptively easy for the audience to feel what his character feels at every stage of the plot.
Filled with suspense and drama, this compelling thriller of a play is very good and will make the audience contemplate on the moral and political dilemmas long after they have left the theatre. Incidentally, there is an excellent foreword from Clive Stafford Smith, Director of Reprieve, in the programme notes. Scathing of Tony Blair, it gives a very good but chilling context of the way torture has come to be accepted in our world.
Death and the Maiden runs until 31 December. At the time of writing, performance time was 1 hour 50 minutes with no interval. For tickets, contact the box office.