Hannah Ritchie reviews Death and The Maiden, a play by Ariel Dorfman which can be seen as a thought-provoking exploration of the traumatic effects of fascist regimes.

Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden is a thought-provoking exploration of the traumatic effects of fascist regimes. Through one couple, Dorfman explores how victims can achieve justice in the wake of these tragedies. We see a push for institutional justice from lawyer Gerardo Escobar (Daniel Jonusas), but it is difficult not to sympathise with his wife Paulina Salas (Sarah Chamberlain), whose kidnap of the man she believes to have tortured her is a personal way of finding justice and closure. Though the play was written in the light of Pinochet’s regime in Chile, it tackled relevant issues such as violence against women and corruption. However, it was in the realisation of this powerful script that director Rahul Srivastava’s production fell short.

The play falls on the shoulders of only three actors, all of whom did reasonably well despite some confusion and a delayed start to their performance. Nonetheless, there seemed to be a lack of development in their relationships with each other. They were also surprisingly restrained considering how visceral Dorfman’s writing is – I spent most of the play wishing that all three of them would just let go and really get stuck into unravelling their characters. When tragedy and injustice is distilled into the interweaving stories of three people, the tension surely has to boil over at some point, but I only really saw a simmer most of the time.

Individually, much gravitas of the play falls to Paulina, whose story I was especially interested in. How do you come to terms with a trauma that you have struggled with for years, whilst also attempting to play the ‘good wife’ at home and in public, plus deal with your husband not believing that you definitely have one of your attackers held captive in your living room? Despite all this inner torment and strain, Chamberlain played Paulina with an incongruous, almost sultry confidence, including a strange element of cruelty in her interactions with Gerardo, despite Paulina professing to love him. This same cruelty was better placed when it turned on her suspected attacker, Roberto Miranda (Konstantin Wertelecki). There was something unsettling and moving about the reversal of the victim/attacker dynamic when Chamberlain spat the kind of abuse to Roberto that Paulina had endured fifteen years earlier. There were some moments of potential in Chamberlain’s performance. However, to tackle such a complex character is a challenge and I wish her potential had been developed with better direction.

Development was also needed in Jonusas’s portrayal of Gerardo –the ambitious lawyer who longs to dish out justice but still plays by the rules– as more finesse was needed to really convey the nuances of the role. Jonusas comes across as a very natural actor, but again I felt that better direction would have pushed him to a more refined portrayal of how Gerardo deals with the confusion and complexity of his situation. I was especially impressed when he snapped later on in the play once Roberto pushes Gerardo too far. Finally, a boiling point! Jonusas suddenly became believably more scared and stressed and angry – rightly so when you remember that his character is dealing with one of his wife’s potential torturers held captive in his home.

Said captive torturer, Roberto, was very much the kind and intellectual Good Samaritan at first, but in crept a small sinister edge to Wertelecki’s performance when quoting Nietzsche’s pronouncement: “we can never entirely possess the female soul”. He was also disconcertingly and convincingly vile towards the end of the play when describing how Roberto grew to enjoy helping with Paulina’s torture. Wertelecki played to the balcony in many scenes, which is not necessary for such a small space as the Barron, and he could have slowed his dialogue at times. However, there was a maturity to his performance which was lacking in the other two.

Overall, I could see the passion behind the production, but unfortunately it just fell flat. Srivastava’s director’s note suggested an understanding of the play so I was disappointed when this did not wholly come across in the performances. There were creative technical and staging aspects that interested me, but audio-visuals only go so far when the task of conveying such a rich text falls mostly on your cast. More work should have been put in on Srivastava’s part to really unpack the intensity of Dorfman’s play with his actors, but I appreciate the ambition behind deciding to stage it. It is important to remember the play’s messages about trauma and justice, as well as its warning about how politics and circumstance can draw evil from seemingly good people.

STARS: ***


Hannah Ritchie