My first thoughts on watching Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden were to congratulate Rahul Srivastava’s bold choice of play. The harrowing story follows the recollections of a middle-aged woman of her time as a prisoner of war in a time of dictatorship, when she unexpectedly comes across a man she believes to be one of her torturers. The subject matter is harsh and unforgiving, making the play difficult to watch, and, I’m sure, to produce and direct. The audience are constantly having to question the truth of events – whether they happened, or happened only in Paulina’s head. The sense of ambiguity is paramount to the audience’s perception of the play, forcing engagement with the characters. A good play doesn’t necessarily have to be enjoyable to watch, but rather, as was my experience with Death and the Maiden, should leave you appreciating the raw emotion of its characters.
The one-act play opened with several minutes of a gently suspenseful wave soundtrack, with the only movement on stage coming from two flickering candles. The moment was as equally meditative as it was uncomfortable, in the almost pregnant pause for the start of the play, building from subtle, to extremely oppressive tension as the minutes ticked by. This sense of discomfort was upheld throughout the play.
Konstantin Wertelecki, as Doctor Roberto, was the stand-out performance of the evening, particularly in his physicality. Given that the character spends much of the play in silence, Wertelecki worked hard to display every detail of every emotion, from jerking eye movements and eyebrow twitches, to subtle trembling throughout. The result was chilling, both entrancing and repulsing the audience, in keeping with the total ambiguity of the character. The audience never receives an answer as to how we should feel about the Doctor, and whilst it would have been easy to play the character as too overtly creepy, or innocent, Wertelecki expertly trod the line between the two extremes.
The character of Paulina (Sarah Chamberlain) is a particularly complex one, switching rapidly from psychotic, to somewhat broken and feeble. Chamberlain acted with vigour and a degree of over-exaggeration during the more dramatic moments, working to emphasise the character’s volatility, yet didn’t always make an entirely fluid transition for the quieter scenes, meaning that she sometimes came across as a little insincere. Despite this, her acting was entirely believable and engaging.
Daniel Jonusas’ Gerardo played a more minor role, but his acting still shone. The character is the perhaps most easily recognisable as a protagonist in the play, drawing the audience towards him in his role as mediator. Jonusas was equally adept in his calmer moments as in the more dramatic. Overall, the trio of actors skilfully navigated a difficult play, giving a raw and realistic performance.
Design, though simple, perfectly reflected the rawness of emotion running throughout the play. A particularly interesting choice of costume was the Doctor’s all white suit at the end of the play; given the ambiguous ending, one could argue that the white represented either innocence, or a ghostlier figure of guilt.
The production may not have been seamless, but given that the play is an exploration of human darkness, ‘perfect’ is not what was needed; it required the raw, animalistic emotion, which would have disappeared in a more polished production. The whole cast and crew should be congratulated.