Death and the Maiden

There’s an intense physical vulnerability to Thandie Newton as an actress. Fine-boned and slender, just her presence draws your attention to how awkward, unyielding and harsh a place the world can be.

This effect is something that director Jeremy Herrin successfully harnesses in his production of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, a bleak meditation on torture and the nature of justice, set in an unnamed South American country, in which Newton is making her West End debut.

Early in the play, Newton’s Paulina Salas knocks out Roberto Miranda (Anthony Calf), a doctor who’s given her husband a lift home and who she believes was responsible for her state-sponsored abuse over a decade earlier. She drags him from the guest bedroom and ties him to the chair from which she will commence a makeshift ‘trial’ for his crimes. Herrin doesn’t rush this sequence, playing out in excruciating detail the difficulty that the physically slight Newton – all the while, carrying a gun that looks enormous in her hands – experiences in trying to move the unconscious man. The contrast turns her eventual success into a powerful evocation of the character’s pain- and rage-filled determination.

The production’s unspoken elements work well, from the atmospheric music to Peter McKintosh’s set design; the apartment that Salas shares with her husband, Gerardo Escobar (Tom Goodman-Hill), may be stylish, but it feels like a prison.

The partially illuminated latticed screen that closes between scenes turns the stage into a cage. It underlines Salas’s fear of the outside world and her entrapment by the traumatic past she’s unable to leave behind. When, in the opening minutes, she drops cat-like to the floor as car headlights flood the room, we see how thin and cracked the veneer of her life is.

Dorfman’s refusal to reveal whether or not Miranda is the man who tortured Salas while the country was under military dictatorship is a good move. It turns what could be a straightforward revenge thriller into something more complex and disquieting, which asks: at what cost to ourselves – individually and as a society – do we pursue retribution for the wrongs we’ve suffered? Certainly, the recent death of Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi lends this question urgent contemporary resonance.

Given this premise, it’s a shame, then, that the play itself can be a flat and strangely static thing. Too often the characters come across as talking heads; Salas and her horrified husband trade ethical standpoints rather than interacting with the weight and heft of real people.

Coupled with this is a tendency towards melodrama that clots the potentially bloody open wound of the situation. The revelation that when Salas was released she discovered Escobar in bed with another woman is unnecessary stuffing in a script that’s already bursting at the seams with issues.

The character of Salas is one of the script’s most problematic aspects. She’s afforded cripplingly little room for self-doubt over her actions or fear that she might be mistaken about Miranda’s identity. The only time that she acknowledges any hesitation is in triumph, after it’s passed – we never see it. Without these crossroad moments, a sense of fate being in the balance, we have less of a stake in what happens than a story of this nature cries out for.

And once you get past the incongruity of seeing her spit out words like “cunt” in swaggering imitation of her captors, Newton’s strained performance, lacking in nuance, doesn’t help.

More engrossing is the way in which Escobar colludes with Miranda (an effectively off-kilter and evasive Calf) to secure the latter’s release, secretly taping his wife’s account of her torture so that the doctor can learn it and produce a convincing ‘confession’. In Goodman-Hill’s hands, Salas’s husband lurks in shade. By turns brittle, nervy and imploring, his expression inscrutable, it’s never clear whether his horror at her behaviour is rooted in love, ethics or fear that it’ll tarnish his shiny public image as the President-appointed investigator of the previous regime’s crimes.

His quickness to dismiss her as paranoid begs questions. Does he want to do the right thing, or simply be seen to be doing the right thing? Satisfyingly, if bleakly, the play refuses to answer.

First published by Exeunt Magazine