Death and the Maiden was premiered in 1991 at The Royal Court Theatre, London and is as relevant today as ever. There is no real indication of time in the play and whilst the assumption is that they could be in Chile, the sense of the story is about a country emerging from years of dictatorship into a democracy and the troubles that need to be solved before people can move on.
Paulina Salas is a former political prisoner who was raped by her captors. Her memories are focused on a sadistic unnamed doctor who she never saw, however he pay Schubert’s Death and the Maiden during the act of rape and so the play gains its title.
Years later, Paulina’s husband Gerardo has a puncture on the way home from a high profile presidential meeting and a stranger named Dr. Miranda stops to assist him. Dr. Miranda drives Gerardo home and later in the night he returns. Paulina recognizes Miranda’s voice and mannerism as that of her rapist, and takes him captive in order to put him on trial and extract a confession from him. It is never truly clear if he is guilty or innocent or whether it is Paulina’s paranoia as to whether he has the mannerisms of the rapist. However, the process is traumatic for all concerned and the conclusion ambiguous.
This is a difficult play, full of burning intensity and accusations. Sophie Brooks as Paulina Salas captures the fragility and confusion of such a damaged soul; supported by Richard Chiversas Gerado and Darian Nelson as Roberto Miranda. These are strong performances in the face of such dialogue; which at times feels like an emotional onslaught. Directed by Maurice Smith much of the highly intimate and important scenes are played toofar upstage where lighting is darker causing shadows across faces and much of the action is in profile or occasionally, from where I was sitting, with backs to the audience. This was disappointing and distracting, the set was solid with good ideas but ultimately limiting to have such a vital playing area at the back of the set when another cast member is in the foreground.
The final projection sequence might have worked if you were sat fairly centrally but certainly the text was unintelligible on the house tabs from where I was sitting and those around me which again broke the dramatic tension that the cast had worked so hard to achieve. It might have been better to consider using some of the draped fabric on the set or the seascape picture on the back wall for the projection as anything that carries information needs to be seen on a flat surface.
It is clear that many atrocities are continuing across the world and the potential to do more is always there. It is admirable to see this excellent cast take on such a challenging and thought provoking play in this troubled political climate and for those new to the piece, it will no doubt raise much further discussion.