Skip to content

Death and the Maiden

by on 24 September 2022

For Want of a Nail…

Death and the Maiden

by Ariel Dorfman

The Questors Theatre at Questors Studio, Ealing until 1st October

Review by Andrew Lawston

One evening, married couple Gerardo and Paulina Escobar bicker about whose job it ought to be to keep their car’s spare tyre inflated, as they celebrate Gerardo’s appointment to a new Commission.  It ought to be a familiar-enough domestic scene, but the audience have already seen Paulina pull a gun from a drawer on seeing an unfamiliar car outside their house, and we quickly learn that the Commission has been appointed to investigate murders and other human rights abuses committed under the Escobars’ unnamed country’s previous regime.  From the outset, Death and the Maiden’s tone is unsettled and intense.  The cosy domestic setting of the Escobars’ seaside home is a thin veneer over a couple, and a country, who have clearly suffered huge psychological and physical damage.

We learn that after driving over a nail which punctured his tyre, Gerardo waited forty-five minutes on the motorway before being picked up by the apparent Good Samaritan, Doctor Roberto Miranda.  When Roberto returns to the Escobar home, to offer to drive Gerardo back out to pick up his car, he ends up staying the night, tempted by the offer of Paulina’s breakfast.

Instead of making him breakfast, however, Paulina assaults the doctor, and binds him to a chair with pairs of tights grabbed from the laundry basket.  A victim of the previous regime, she is convinced from the sound of his voice that Roberto was one of her unseen torturers.  She tells Gerardo that she intends to put the doctor on trial, to extract a confession from him.

Tautly directed by Richard Graylin, this intense three-hander relies almost entirely on the plausibility of its performances, and all three are mesmerising.  Nina Flitman’s Paulina arguably has the most to do, alternating between attentive host, profoundly damaged victim, and implacable executioner.  Flitman’s magnetic performance is the heart of the play, and it is hard for the audience to take their eyes off her for a single moment.

James Burgess plays her husband Gerardo, a tireless campaigner for justice who is unexpectedly called upon to confront his country’s past injustices in his own living room.  Burgess gives a compelling performance of a man out of his depth, whose abstract views of justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation quickly founder when faced with his wife’s traumatic experiences.

The final actor is Adam Kimmel as Doctor Roberto Miranda, an apparently affable soul who loves to help people in need, but who shows occasional flashes of a much darker side.  Kimmel spends much of the play bound to a chair, but still gives a commanding performance, from his early bonhomie to his chilling confession, and ultimate breakdown.

The question of whether Roberto’s confession is genuine, whether he truly was one of the regime’s torturers, and even his eventual fate at Paulina’s hands, is wisely left ambiguous in favour of exploring the play’s wider themes of a nation’s delicate process of coming to terms with its recent past, of the uneasy compromises involved in a transition to democracy.  Although the play’s location is never made explicit, it is intended to evoke Chile, but substitute communists for fascists, and Death and the Maiden could have been set in any number of Eastern European countries.  Indeed, as Gerardo describes the precarious nature of his country’s new democracy, and the compromises that must apparently be made with extremists, this feels like an extremely timely production.

Of course, another reason to keep the truth of Roberto’s past ambiguous is that the plot hinges on the implausible coincidence of a stray nail in the road leading to Gerardo meeting his wife’s torturer on the very day he is appointed to lead the Commission investigating human rights abuses.  It’s a credit to both the play and this production that the sheer magnitude of this contrivance never occurs while watching it.

The Studio at Questors is an intimate space that lends a claustrophobic energy to Ariel Dorfman’s play, making the audience complicit in Paulina’s decision to confront her trauma.  The set by Gareth Williams and Alex Marker evokes a minimalist dining room at one end of the stage, and an outdoor balcony at the other.  With Roberto spending much of the play tied up and sitting at the dining table, while Paulina watches him from the balcony, the audience is forced to choose which to watch, often looking between the two ends of the stage like spectators at a tennis match, heightening this sense of complicity.

The sound design from Emerson Bramwell is similarly minimal, limited to the sound of waves crashing against the nearby shore, and the occasional car engine.  Combined with frequently subdued lighting from Andrew Whadcoat, and understated costumes from Carla Evans, and the universality of this psychological drama is heightened, as all elements of the production direct the audience’s attention to the performances.

With Paulina’s frank account of her ordeal, including some very “strong language”, Death and the Maiden is often not an easy play to watch.  But its compelling performances and ambiguous ending will stay with you long after the final curtain call.

Andrew Lawston, September 2022

Photography by Evelina Plonyte

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: