Behind the Scenes of Death and the Maiden
It’s midday and the Barron Theatre is swathed in darkness, dressed in black: a fitting location for the last rehearsals before the opening of the morbidly titled Death and the Maiden tomorrow. It’s freezing cold, and the set and the actors are only half dressed, messing around during downtime spent between practicing crucial scenes. “It’s opening night tonight, isn’t it?” Ollie Carr, playing Dr Roberto Miranda, calls up casually to Vivian Bernfeld, the play’s director, who is perched in the stalls clutching a copy of the text. Vivian’s been fighting to bring the play to St Andrews for three long years now and it’s her baby.
"Tonight? Tomorrow is opening night!", Vivian yells in disbelief. After all, this play has only been three years in the making. “I’m actually really upset right now, Ollie…” she reprimands. She turns to Owl Eyes: “If I told you the stories about this boy… yesterday, I said, ‘Ollie, you don’t know your lines.’ He said, “I know of my lines.” She rolls her eyes. “My cast: they’re such actors.”
It’s a stereotype they’re willing to live up to: “We’ll probably be crawling to the theatre tomorrow at 6:45pm,” interjects Will Moore, the other male lead in the production. Vivian laughs it off with good humour. The joke is this – Death and the Maiden tells the story of three characters and three characters only, Paulina Escobar (played by Adelaide Waldrop), Gerardo Escobar, Paulina’s husband (Will Moore) and Dr Roberto Miranda, (Ollie Carr), who is accused of having raped Paulina many years before. If any member of the cast fails to show up before curtain up, the show doth not go on – and it’s taken long enough to get it to the stage as it is. Plus, as Waldrop explains, the cast can’t afford to lose anybody, “We’re so dependent on each other.” "It’s so satisfying from an actor’s perspective" adds Moore, "because all the actors are completely necessary. There’s no one who’s ‘Guard Number Three’, who has one line and risks being cut.’" Sounding a bit barren? A bit theatre? "Every scene is so important" Vivian argues. "I’ve never felt, watching a scene, “I could cut this.” And when the three of them are on stage? That’s really powerful.”
Powerful, it is. Death and the Maiden is set in an unnamed Latin American country, in a period of transition from dictatorship to democracy. “He’s a Chilean,” explains Vivian of playwright, Ariel Dorfman. “So he’s talking about Pinochet. He wrote it at a time when it was very important to get that political message across. The drama is really intense,” she adds, following the rehearsal of a scene, in which Paulina confronts her maybe-rapist for the first time. “It’s really high drama, but it’s not Shakespearian drama. It’s very subtle, very casual, very conversational.” It’s one of the reasons Vivian chose it to make her directorial debut in St Andrews. “The moral of the story is so real – whether you think vengeance is worth it, whether the main character, Paulina, should seek vengeance" she adds. Then there’s also the ambiguity of the play’s conclusion – is the doctor guilty? Or is Paulina just mad?
“I’ve come to the conclusion,” explains Carr, whose responsibility it is to present the audience with a Doctor that’s neutral enough to go both ways, into innocence and guilt, “I want to make it as ambiguous as possible. It’s so much better to be able to go away and think about it.”
‘I think he did [rape Paulina],” contributes Moore, who plays the neutral force, the mediating role of Gerardo. “Right at the end, Paulina gives a bit of evidence that I think is pretty compelling. But the thing is, she could be making that up because she’s pretty crazy.” Crazy, a word so commonly associated with the women of heavyweight theatre: Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, but Paulina? Do we dare doubt her? “It brings up something interesting,” muses Waldrop, "that comes up a lot in any film or TV shows that deal with rape: now that our society has moved to the point of being more inclined to believe rape victims, it calls into question how sound these people’s powers of reasoning are if they’re this emotionally damaged.” So what does Waldrop think of the character she knows better than anyone else? “I think Paulina could have made some of the evidence up. Dr Miranda could be guilty, but she just wants to be so sure. She convinces herself of a lot.”
The ambiguity over not just Dr Miranda’s guilt but over Paulina’s mental state is another of the reasons Vivian chose to stage this play. "The female role is intense for anyone to play. She’s so dominating. How many plays do we see a female role like this? She’s suffering alone and she just wants to do something.” Waldrop agrees: “This is something that doesn’t happen very often, this kind of part. For a woman, or for anybody.” It’s satisfying to see a woman as the lynchpin; the central, driving force behind this emotional juggernaut. It’s arguably even more satisfying to see that it’s women behind the wheel of the production, too – not that it’s been easy.
“It’s been three years [in the making]. I had an idea, we had a good cast – everything was great. Then the girl who was playing Paulina quit St Andrews,” explains the director. The chemistry Vivian had cultivated was suddenly at a loss without it’s leading lady. “So I re-auditioned and I got these guys. But the Mermaids had so many shows on last semester, they didn’t have a venue,” she pauses, talking intensely. “We would have had to have performed it in The Lizard,” she continues, without a hint of irony. “Obviously, I wanted to do it justice. So I waited, and over the summer, Emily Webb, the producer, got the rights and secured the Byre…” She makes it sound simple. In reality, Webb had to hard-sell the ill-fated play’s sob-story before they finally got permission to bring Maiden to St Andrews’ stage.
“I feel like I’m a Paulina in this situation,” Vivian laughs, at her role as director. "I directed at school, but I’m doing everything completely on my own" she explains. "At school, you have a safety net. You have a venue for free. No, this time I fought for a budget. I fought for the rights." A Paulina, indeed.
So will Vivian, a fourth year, be taking on another directorial challenge in second and last semester? She shakes her head as her cast kick about in the background. “No,” she answers, decisively, sounding a little tired. “No. It’s been a really long process.” Three years, to be precise. Tomorrow night, these three actors will take to the stage and perform a play that’s been three years in the making. No pressure. Is she confident? “I’m actually feeling confident,” she smiles. “But I’ve seen the play. I know it so well.” She pauses for a second. “It’s not very well known, but it should be.” She’s right, it should be. Tomorrow – if the rehearsals are anything to go by – it will be.
Death and the Maiden debuts tomorrow (Wednesday the 18th of October) at 7.30pm, and Thursday at 7.30pm. Tickets are £6 for students and £8 for non-students, and are available through the Byre or on the door.