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October 26, 2011 5:21 pm
When Ariel Dorfman wrote Death and the Maiden in 1990 he had just returned to Chile after 17 years in exile. The questions in the play had an urgency for him, living in the uneasy post-Pinochet democracy, that gave the drama its edge. Now, some 20 years later, the world has moved on, but the questions, sadly, are still topical. Is torture ever justified? How should we bring the perpetrators to justice? How can a country emerging from a brutal dictatorship go forward, with tormentors and victims living side by side? It is apt, too, that the play is the first at the newly named Harold Pinter Theatre (formerly the Comedy), given that Pinter encouraged Dorfman and was himself an active champion of human rights.
Jeremy Herrin’s revival then, still resonates and, as it reaches its climax, does achieve white-knuckle tension. But the evening doesn’t overwhelm you as it could, partly because the build-up feels rather sticky, and partly because the play makes immense demands of the central character and Thandie Newton doesn’t find the depth she needs.
Newton, making her West End debut, plays Paulina, a victim of torture under an ousted regime. Her husband, Gerardo, is a lawyer working on a truth and reconciliation commission – which she feels will not go far enough in bringing wrongdoers to justice. Their differences become critical when Gerardo brings home a stranger and Paulina recognises him, or thinks she does, as the sadistic doctor who raped her and oversaw her torture. She takes him captive at gunpoint and subjects him to a trial. As the terrified man confesses, Dorfman astutely interweaves moral debate and psychological thriller. We, like Gerardo, keep changing our minds as to whether Paulina is correct and, if so, whether her revenge is justified. Either way, we see the damage inflicted by her ordeal and the unreliability of any confession obtained under duress.
Newton achieves blazing anger convincingly, but her performance tends to be too much on one note and is not deep enough to convey the pain of this profoundly traumatised woman. She has strong support though: Tom Goodman-Hill, as Gerardo, skilfully conveys the moral uproar going on inside his character, while Anthony Calf, as the stranger, remains ambiguous to the end.
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