Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden is built around an unknown – an indescribably despicable act that has haunted Paulina (Sarah Chamberlain) and her husband Gerardo (Daniel Jonusas) for fifteen years. In the interim, they’ve tried to move
on, whilst the horrors of their country’s totalitarian past have been laid to rest. Yet, just as Gerardo is to be appointed to a governmental position, the ghost in Paulina’s head re-enters her life in the form of Roberto (Konstantin Wertelecki), and morality, innocence and sanity are all thrown into question. Director Rahul Srivastava has made a valiant effort In tackling this politically and morally explosive play, although his production comes off a tad lacklustre.
There’s no doubt that it is a menace of a script. Everything is intense, leaving the production with little breathing space. Whilst this may serve as a valid comment on the nature of post-totalitarian states, in theatrical terms it leads to emotional numbness. It requires skill to shape this kind of beast into something that can remain resonant, and sadly this interpretation failed to keep my attention. There ids only so much visceral anger and intensely uncomfortable emotion an audience can take, and if you don’t give them any kind of relief they’re going to tune out.
The acting suffered from a similar lack of variation. These actors are undoubtedly talented, but the script gave them limited room for range. We definitely believe Paulina is unstable, but that’s all we believe about her – there’s nothing greater to uncover. Likewise, Roberto got stuck in such a tedious emotional loop trying to assert his innocence, that I eventually grew apathetic to his fate. Daniel Jonusas’ Gerardo showed more promise, effusing the kind of emotional and moral ambiguity that this play aims to highlight. All this meant that after an hour, the play began to grate. I got bored of how many times Paulina pulled a gun without actually firing it. I was viscerally irked by Roberto’s constant mood shifts, where he alternated between shaking with fear and angrily shouting. Its not that I fundamentally hated these characters, or what the actors had been told to do with them – I just did not engage with them in the way the play wanted me too. I couldn’t sympathise with them.
Death and the Maiden is a difficult play. It’s nauseating. It’s meant to make us think. It’s challenging and it challenges. As such, it requires a skilled hand to navigate a production through Dorfman’s minefield of a script. Though Srivastava and his team made a damned good effort, it needed a lot more refinement to achieve the desired effect.