Sydney Theatre Company’s Death And The Maiden – a review by Deb Meyer

September 8, 2015 by Deb Meyer
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How does a country and an individual move forward after experiencing the brutality of dictatorship? Is it best totally buried or totally revealed?

Susie Porter in Death and the Maiden: Photo by Jeff Busby

Susie Porter in Death and the Maiden: Photo by Jeff Busby

And how to achieve truth and justice in a fragile democracy where victims and perpetrators co-exist? Chilean playwright, Ariel Dorfman, grapples these weighty themes in his powerful, award-winning psychological thriller, Death And The Maiden.

Dorfman, whose parents were Jewish and arrived in Argentina in the 1920’s, fleeing war and repression in Eastern Europe, wrote the play in 1991, only a year after Chile returned to democracy after Pinochet’s brutal regime.

It was during Dorfman’s 17 years in exile that he developed the play’s story, beginning with a man (Gerardo) whose car breaks down on the motorway and is given a lift home by a friendly stranger (Roberto). Gerardo’s wife (Paulina), believing she recognises in the stranger the voice of the torturer who raped her years before, kidnaps him, ties him up and puts him on trial.

Adding tension between the three characters, Gerardo is a member of the President’s Commission, set up to investigate crimes that led to death during Pinochet’s dictatorship, thereby requiring objectivity towards his wife’s alleged torturer and rapist.

Steve Mouzakis and Eugene Gilfedder in Death and the Maiden: Photo by Jeff Busby

Steve Mouzakis and Eugene Gilfedder in Death and the Maiden: Photo by Jeff Busby

Music composition and sound design, by The Sweats, is highly effective in further enhancing tension in the play. The plays’ title coming from Schubert’s string quartet of the same name, enjoyed by Paulina’s rapist during her fifteen years of torture.

Dorfman’s poetic script is brilliantly constructed and as relevant as ever, potentially set in any country that’s experienced similar political turmoil. The three characters brim with complexity and symbolise very different perspectives, in a play that Dorfman hoped “might help a collective to purge itself, through pity and terror….and force the spectators to confront those predicaments which, if not brought into the light of day, could lead to their ruin”.

Director Leticia Caceres has created a stripped back production with a clever and clinical eye. The set and lighting, designed by Nick Schlieper, is starkly modern, with three high white walls which link to form a ‘Y’ shape from above, dividing the space into three narrow rooms, which revolve throughout the play. The claustrophobic, bare rooms, with only a chair and a tape recorder, highlight Paulina’s emotional imprisonment. Dorfman specifically set his play in an unknown location that closely parallels events in Chile. It’s a risky set, either depicting anywhere or no-where and feels rather impersonal.

In a stage so bare, the focus is squarely on the acting. Susie Porter, as Paulina Salas, gives a bold performance, playing the ‘mad wife’ with despair and conviction. In a contemporary black top with army style, khaki pants, Porter well delivers the contradiction of sanity and madness, creating a character of sensitivity and power, with whom we can feel both sympathy and fear.

The two male actors don’t provide nearly as much conviction. Experienced Melbourne actor Steve Mouzakis plays Gerardo Escobar as the kind and fearful husband, mistrusting of his wife’s emotional vulnerability. His performance is inconsistent, though a highlight of the play includes his character’s nuanced transition in his assessment of Roberto.

Highly experienced and awarded Queensland actor Eugene Gilfedder plays Doctor Roberto Mirander. With the challenge of being tied up to a chair and gagged for most of the play, Doctor Mirander is a difficult role, requiring the audience to feel conflicted by the presumption of his innocence or guilt. Gilfedder doesn’t quite bring enough credibility to Doctor Mirander to make this powerhouse of a play really pop.

Despite certain criticisms, Death And The Maiden is a play that deserves to be seen, especially with Dorfman’s ability to address human rights issues, with a combination of truth, hope, literary imagination and complex questioning. Exploring themes of exile, identity, history and memory, along with forgiveness and the need for reconciliation and peace, it’s no wonder Dorfman acknowledges the influence of his Jewish heritage on his writing.


 

Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman

Sydney Theatre Company

Wharf 1

Directed by Leticia Caceres

Until October 17, 2015

Duration: 1hr 30mins (no interval)

Sydney Opera House Box Office (02) 9250 7777

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