“People have died from an excessive dose of the truth”
Ariel Dorfman’s play 1990 Death and the Maiden is set in an unspecified country in which a military dictatorship has just fallen: as a Chilean citizen, it is not hard to see where the inspiration might have come from. This tale is of a former political prisoner who unexpectedly encounters a man, who happens to have given her husband a lift home, who she comes to believe was one of the hooded men who tortured her in her captivity. She then turns the table, taking him captive and puts him on (mock) trial to elicit the confession she needs in order to move on with her life though her husband, a lawyer who is part of the Commission dealing with the legacy of the repressive regime, has his doubts.
Jeremy Herrin’s production is notable for marking the first stage role for Thandie Newton, an actress best know for her film work (and also for making ER unwatchable for a couple of series, poor Dr Carter…) One could sugar-coat the comments and talk about the fact that it is her theatrical debut and so perhaps a little leniency is in order, but we’re past press night and as a paying customer I have to say I was disappointed. Newton doesn’t seem to have the language to fully portray the profundity of her character here: not physically, as in the unconvincing opening scene where she just doesn’t come across as haunted enough nor emotionally, she just exudes too much composure even whilst ostensibly unravelling and so never convinces at showing the depth of the psychological damage that drives Paulina to her extreme actions.
In some ways, matters are exacerbated by the strength of her co-stars. Tom Goodman-Hill demonstrates great subtlety in his performance as her husband Gerardo, a caring liberal lawyer torn between doing what he feels is right and his (inexplicably) deep love for his wife, shading in frustrations both from past and present that make him fascinating to watch. Anthony Calf is also excellent at muddying the water with his character, leaving a real sense of ambiguity as to just how innocent or guilty he might be.
For me there was also the sense that the play hasn’t necessarily aged that well especially as events have overtaken it a little. Whether it is the new generation of Chilean writers who are tackling their country’s troubled history head on or the very real drama that is coming from the ongoing impact of the events of the Arab Spring, Dorfman’s writing didn’t hit me with the urgency that I wanted, though it is often clever in the way in which it shifts our sympathies from person to person, throwing shadows of doubt on even the most resolute of positions.
So a rather inauspicious beginning for the newly-renamed Harold Pinter Theatre with something of a mis-step. Matters aren’t helped by several reviewers harking on about how amazing Juliet Stevenson was in the original production at the Royal Court upstairs – and I can well imagine how her intensity in that intimate space would have worked wonders for the show – but even from the perspective of someone who did not see that production, I would be hard-pressed to recommend this to you.