Review: Death and the Maiden, Harold Pinter Theatre
Sometimes a faulty production can be as instructive as a great one. Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden reads as a taut and sinewy distillation. It seems to spit and tear itself from the page as Paulina Salas, a victim of gang-rape and torture under a recently ousted dictatorship, takes justice into her own hands. Jeremy Herrin’s West End revival, the first in London since the play stormed into the Royal Court Upstairs in 1991, reveals its slickness. And not in a good way.
Paulina is played by Thandie Newton, pristine as a porcelain doll, and even though she never seems as brittle as all that – she’s still steely – there’s a composure to her performance that makes the play a pop thriller. In her glossed lips, “It turned out just as I planned” gets the cunning inflection of a mastermind detective, relishing the moment the final jigsaw piece fits into place.
That clever, twisting structure is the foundation of Dorfman’s play, which needs to thrill in any production. However, if it is not concealed, Death and the Maiden becomes a flippant exploitation of deadly serious events. Reduced to a pop thriller, as Herrin’s production manages, it seems to dance on the mass graves of such regimes.
All of which makes Paulina the piece’s lynchpin. The actress needs to almost work against the play, to deliver a performance that knocks it off its pedestal. Paulina needs to overpower the play’s neatness, to upset its clockwork heartbeat.
This is beyond Newton, who would be adequate in a less viscerally demanding role. Instead, dressed in an Armani blouse and skirt, she is every bit the nourish film star. She points a gun like a pro, but she remains as dangerous as saline solution and strips Paulina of her essential unpredictability.
Because when Paulina takes the man she believes responsible for her systematic abuse hostage after he turns up by chance, having rescued her husband from a roadside flat tyre, she must be capable of anything. Just as important, we must – at least in part – not begrudge her anything, even if we acknowledge the ethical conundrum. For the duration of the play’s events, Paulina must be a very sympathetic psychopath.
Herrin is, however, more interested in a making the play look good, crackle along and pulsate with a creepy atmosphere. In Peter McKintosh’s design, the Salas’s home resembles an open grave, an underground bunker and an interrogation room. Headlights surge through the window like searchlights that stop escapees in their tracks.
Nonetheless, Tom Goodman-Hill and Anthony Calf make interesting, complex and credible choices as Paulina’s husband, who tries to regain control and maintain composure, and the doctor taken hostage. Calf, for example, strikes a very fine balance between a distinctive voice and a unique one. In another production, you’d trust them to explode, but here, in a production made safe as a stage handgun, they can’t pierce the poise and polish.
Photograph: Alistair Muir