In Jeremy Herrin’s scrupulous revival of Ariel Dorfman’s thriller “Death and the Maiden,” Tom Goodman-Hill, Anthony Calf and, in her stage debut, Thandie Newton all eschew overly emotional display. But while that impressively keeps the play’s moral and political ambiguities in focus, the approach has a serious downside: Restraint reveals the play’s contrivances.
Newton is Paulina, a woman who fifteen years ago survived systematic torture and rape at the hands of an unseen assailant. Goodman-Hill is Gerardo, the man who has loved and looked after her and who, as a human rights lawyer, has just been appointed to look into the human rights abuses of the (unnamed) previous political regime on behalf of those who died.
Gerardo accidentally meets Roberto Miranda (Anthony Calf), but when the latter comes to their house, a horrified Paulina ties him up, threatens him at gunpoint and sets up a “trial” because, she says, he was her torturer. The play then moves through a series of taut scenes fueled by arguments about Roberto’s guilt or innocence, the morality of revenge and the need for confession.
In the play’s U.K. premiere in 1991, the neatness of the plot oscillations was obscured by Juliet Stevenson in “Truly, Madly, Deeply” mode giving Paulina a huge range of emotional display. Newton, however, takes note of the fact that Paulina’s smartly thought-through plan is the action of a mind more coldly furious than frantic.
The problem facing Newton, however, is that her experience is solely cinematic. She relies on reacting rather than acting. Her pained sincerity is unquestionable, but she lacks the stagecraft to run scenes. That unbalances the proceedings, as the well-cast Goodman-Hill is forced into the position of dominating scenes in which he should be the one being manipulated.
Newton’s scenes with Calf come off better, largely because these scenes require less ambiguity from her character. With him tied to the chair and mostly gagged, it’s absolutely clear that she has the upper hand.
Dorfman is intent on switching sympathies right up to the carefully controlled final scene, which is well achieved on Peter McKintosh’s neatly designed wooden set. But despite Dorfman’s deftly opposed, still-pertinent political arguments around punishment, public and private reconciliation, there’s too little meat on the play’s schematic bones.