In 1991 London hosted the world première of Death and The Maiden so twenty years on it’s fitting that this be the inaugural play at the theatre named for its champion, Harold Pinter. Alex Dorfman’s tale of government atrocities against activists explores the legacy left by a Pinochet-style regime while tackling the opposing natures of retribution and healing.
Showcasing Thandie Newton in her west end debut, the play’s chronology is simple but the themes are complex; the cyclical nature of violence, the essential need for forgiveness, proof, and the responsibility of individuals and authorities to banish the spectre of ongoing societal aggression.
Newton is chic in the pivotal role of Paulina Salas who believes that husband Gerardo (Tom Goodman-Hill) has invited her former torturer, Dr Roberto Miranda (Anthony Calf), in to their home.
Hell-bent on revenge Paulina is convinced of Roberto’s guilt despite having never seen his face. Her husband – recently named as head of the Truth Commission – is wary of pinning a 15 year old crime based on voice and quirks alone. As a human rights lawyer he seeks structure believing the previously absent judicial process is essential in the move to democracy.
Jeremy Herrin’s production is a subtle pressure cooker. From the outset Newton skitters about arming herself as a strange car approaches and tension delicately builds from eavesdropping to fierce debate and confrontation.
The cast are efficient; Newton, despite a slight shrillness, transitions believably from victim to arbitrator, Goodman-Hill is torn between legal beliefs and passion, while Calf leaves us with doubts. Yet overall this production lacks the primitive stamp demanded by the subject matter. This telling is overly polished; Newton is forever in flattering neutrals and too slight for the assault scene while Calf seems vaguely impotent as a threat. The nuanced story asks the audience to consider the transition from totalitarianism to social equality, the needs of the few versus many and the role of compassion in banishing brutality. Yet this production is too streamlined for post Abu Gharib consciousness; leaving the sum of the evening lacking the visceral strength to elevate it from “who-dunnit” to provocative political narrative echoing the horrors of torture, and of personal and collective demons.
Until 12 January 2012
The Harold Pinter Theatre (formerly The Comedy)
London, UK, SW1Y 4DN