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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Death and the Maiden
Harold Pinter Theatre   Autumn-Winter 2011

A woman once tortured under a repressive regime encounters her torturer years later in the new democratic society and takes him prisoner. 

What will she do – kill him, torture him, turn him over to the authorities? And does she have the right man, and is she completely sane herself?

Actually, there are relatively few directions Ariel Dorfman's play (first seen in London two decades ago) can go once he establishes the situation, and while you might not be able to write the rest of the play yourself, very little that happens is going to surprise you.

And so the play is less about plot than about the moral issues of justice and vengeance the situation raises and the portrait of a woman driven to or beyond the edge of madness. 

The play was a critical and popular success in 1991, largely on the basis of a raw-edged performance by Juliet Stevenson. Film actress Thandie Newton makes her stage debut in this revival, and despite all her best efforts her characterisation is too cool and external to carry the play to the emotional heights it wants. 

Newton and director Jeremy Herrin have chosen to make the woman clearly and unambiguously barking mad from the start. This doesn't mean that she's wrong – one of the play's central points is that her mental state does not affect her moral position. She can be sane and still have the wrong man or do the wrong thing, or mad and right. 

But it does mean that Newton plays her with the total confidence and calm of one unwaveringly following her own demons in a reality that is absolutely clear to her. 

We never see the cost of this experience, whether it's the release of passions or the suppression of them, to the woman, and without her internal drama there is very little play left. 

Compounding the plot is the fact that the woman's husband is a lawyer about to take a position in the new government's truth-and-reconcilliation commission, which leaves his position and motives ambiguous. Whose side is he on – his mad wife's or her innocence-pleading captive's, and how much is he driven by concern for his own career future? 

In the absence of any internal struggle in Newton's performance, Tom Goodman-Hill makes the husband seem the more interesting character by default. 

The role of the prisoner could practically be played by a dress dummy, and although Anthony Calf gives it his all, the playwright has provided him with very little to do but struggle against his bonds and repeat that they've got the wrong man.

I've referred to ambiguities more than once, and one of the script's weaknesses is that Dorfman works very hard not to tell us anything for certain, right up to the what-does-this-tableau-mean last moments of the play. 

Ambiguity in drama is fine, in theory, but a play that wants to engage our emotions has to give us some clue as to which emotions we should feel, and about who and what.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Death and the Maiden - Pinter  2011

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