DEATH AND THE MAIDEN
28/05/2015 - 13/06/2015
Psychological thriller Death and the Maiden comes to Auckland
Newmarket Stage Company (NSC) in association with Amnesty International New Zealand is excited to announce the upcoming season of Death and the Maiden, a psychological thriller by Argentine-Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman.
Victim or Villain?
In a remote beach house an anxious woman waits. Her husband arrives accompanied by a mysterious stranger. The scene is set for Newmarket Stage Company’s upcoming production of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, a taut psychological thriller that will make you question your beliefs, your attitudes and your responses. Who is the real villain? Who is your own worst enemy?
The woman, Paulina Salas, is a former political prisoner who was tortured and raped by her captors, led by a sadistic doctor whose face she never saw. The stranger is Doctor Roberto Miranda, who has given Paulina’s husband Gerardo Escobar a lift home. As the evening unfolds Paulina becomes convinced that Miranda is the sadistic doctor who raped her. She takes him captive intent on extracting a confession.
The play, directed by John Callen, will take audiences on a journey through the human psyche exploring themes such as fear, power, loyalty, betrayal, revenge, reconciliation and justice. Veteran actor George Henare is taking on the role of Doctor Roberto Miranda, and says he’s excited about the prospect of playing the baddie for a change. But is he really the manipulative and sadistic villain or merely the unwitting victim of a tormented woman with a lust for revenge?
Paulina will be played by Brazilian-born, New Zealand-based Tatiana Hotere. She feels she has a special connection with the character of Paulina given her South American roots. As a child growing up in Brazil she heard stories of relatives who had sheltered victims fleeing the oppressive dictatorships in neighbouring Chile and Argentina. As research for the role she spoke to an aunt who told her that some of those people the family sheltered are still living in fear.
Completing the trio is actor Edwin Wright who plays Paulina’s husband Gerardo Escobar. Gerardo is a lawyer who has just been appointed to the commission investigating the deaths of dissidents under the previous oppressive regime. He will have the unenviable task of being the voice of reason amidst the madness with his loyalties torn between the woman he loves and the reconciliation of his country.
Death and the Maiden will be performed at
The Factory Theatre in Newmarket
28 May to 13 June.
Tickets available from iTicket.
Stakes too Low
Review by Matt Baker 02nd Jun 2015
Ariel Dorfman is an intellectual. An academic, essayist, novelist, and playwright, his literary prolificacy is comparable only by the activism for human rights which fuels it. Newmarket Stage Company Artistic Director, John Callen, clearly recognises both these aspects, and presenting this production with not only the Newmarket Business Association, but, more importantly, Amnesty International, is both an artistically astute and commercially conscious decision. Comprehension and cause, however, is not enough for the demand of theatre, so while the relevance of the play when considering the atrocities currently playing out across the globe is evident as an intellectual afterthought, the production itself does not resonate the same way Callen’s voice does on the Opera Factory stage during opening night speeches. [More]
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Ambiguity creates unsettling power
Review by Paul Simei-Barton 01st Jun 2015
Acclaimed playwright Ariel Dorfman draws on personal experience of the ruthless military dictatorship that seized power in Chile in the 1970s to deliver a profound and disturbing meditation on the brutality of regimes that systematically use violence against their own citizens.
The play steers away from specific political considerations and takes on the more difficult issue of how to respond to the dehumanising effects of officially sanctioned cruelty.
Director John Callen brings clarity to the intimate encounter between a torturer and his victim that draws the audience into an intense awareness of how individual lives are wrecked by violence. [More]
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer
Rich and layered
Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 29th May 2015
The 20th century, with its brace of world wars and seemingly endless conflict, threw up some especially nasty examples of man’s inhumanity to man especially when we consider such hideous proceedings as the genocide in Armenia (1915–1918), the civil war in Spain (1936–1939), the wars in what was then known as Indo-China (‘First Indochina War’ 1946–1954 and ‘The Vietnam – or American – War’ 1959– 1973), the Soviet – Afghan War (1979–1989), the apparently limitless horrors in the Balkans (1991–1995), ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia and, in 1994, the genocide in Rwanda. This, of course, ignores the fact that the US has been at war constantly with some country or other right throughout the century, as is best evidenced in comic books of the period which clearly identify the enemies of the west in sequence by charmingly branding them as ‘spics’, ‘krauts’, ‘wops’, ‘nips’, ‘chinks’, ‘gooks’, ‘micks, and ‘ragheads’.
Tucked away in that grisly list is the Holocaust – almost too dreadful to comprehend – and our need to find unique distinctions between genocide (the systematic destruction of all or a significant part of a racial, ethnic, religious or national group) and ethnic cleansing (merely intimidating or murdering enough members of an ethnic or religious group to ensure that the rest will move away) while inventing euphemisms to soften the blow of the real: civilian dead become ‘collateral damage’ and war itself is ‘assertive disarmament’. David Bromwich, Sterling Professor of English at Yale University elaborates on this theme by adding that “the frightening thing about the use of euphemisms is their power to efface the memory of actual cruelties. Behind the façade of a history falsified by language, the particulars of war are lost.”
It’s been happening for years with some of the most Machiavellian being ‘coercive interrogation’ for simple torture, ‘extraordinary rendition’ used to describe terror suspects being shipped to countries who practice torture as a means of interrogation and ‘ghost prisoners’ (‘ghost detainees’) who are actually terrorism suspects held by the CIA in the secret prisons of unrecorded hosts where families, legal representation and the Red Cross are barred and their fates lie in the hands of unnamed and unaccountable US personnel. ‘Pockets’ is an equally iniquitous term used to shrink bad news with ‘thousands of marauding Fedayeen’ becoming a ‘pocket of resistance’ and ‘large refugee camps’ described prettily as ‘pockets of need’.
Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden falls within the genre of political theatre* but, conversely, its role in this field is quite elusive, largely because politics in performance is painted on such a broad, colourful and varied canvas.
Founder of Scottish company ‘7.84’, John McGrath, argues that the theatre “can never ‘cause’ a social change. It can articulate pressure towards one, help people celebrate their strengths and maybe build their self-confidence. Above all, it can be the way people find their voice, their solidarity and their collective determination.”[i] I have little doubt that all the above set out to do just as McGrath suggests, and perhaps this is the factor that links Ariel Dorfman with his illustrious – and sometimes notorious – cellmates.
Dorfman’s life experience and the content of his plays are inextricably linked. There’s no standing outside looking in; he’s firmly ensconced in a none-too-comfortable chair, centre stage, mouthing every perfectly delivered line. His nuance is all over the text and, I like to think, all over this fine production as well.
Dorfman is, and has been for thirty years, Walter Hines Page Research Professor of Literature and Professor of Latin American Studies at Duke University and is an American Citizen. He describes himself as of Argentine-Chilean extraction, a playwright, academic and human rights activist. He worked as cultural advisor the President Salvadore Allende and was forced to leave Chile after the coup by Augusto Pinochet in 1973.
An ongoing and stern critic of Pinochet, Dorfman wrote at length about the General’s extradition case for the Spanish tabloid El Pais and in his book Exorcising Terror: The Incredible Unending Trial of General Augusto Pinochet. A staunch advocate of the ‘art reflects life’ school, Dorfman considers his writing to be “deeply political” and says that it “engages the major dilemmas of the community.”[ii] If Death and the Maiden is anything to go by, he’s certainly got that right!
Of his masterpiece Dorfman writes that he has endeavoured to identify “the stark, painful Chilean transition to democracy” and in it he has humanised this emblematic journey and created a work that touches us deeply with its beauty, its intensity, its brutality and its clear message that we’re all capable of unspeakable horrors no matter what our taste in music or our social class.
John Callen’s adept production exposes Dorfman as the master story-teller: a writer for whom narrative is a platform for everything else. Characters live there, actors too, with a dire discomfort that is palpable and which, like any good beating, leaves scars and bruises on all those who witness it.
This is the story of Paulina Salas (a classy Tatiana Hotere), her husband Gerardo Escobar (Edwin Wright at his most blunt) and a certain Dr Roberto Miranda (a suave and silky George Henare). They live comfortably in an unnamed country that seems as though it might be Chile but which is never named. Update the play to today and it could be set in any one of a hundred – often tourist – destinations.
Gerardo, recently appointed head of a commission to look into events that occurred during the sway of a violent junta recently overthrown, is delivered home by Dr Miranda, having been picked up on the roadside when his car broke down. Paulina hears the doctor’s voice and recognises it as belonging to the man who raped and tortured her a decade and a half ago. Escobar, unknowing, invites the good doctor to stay the night and so the fun starts. To tell you more would be to spoil a night at the theatre that is thoroughly engaging and more than a little disturbing, so I’ll stop right now.
Dorfman developed the ideas embedded in Death and the Maiden during Pinochet’s reign of terror in the 1980s and the play was workshopped in 1990. The world premiere took place at London’s prestigious Royal Court Upstairs on 9 July 1991 and it has been a regular on playbills ever since, partly because it’s an excellent script with great roles for actors but also, from an audience perspective, because the horrors experienced by Paulina Salas are still being lived by countless women in many, many countries today. Lindsay Poser’s first-rate first production won the Olivier Award for Best Play of the 1990 season and the work has since gone on to win awards in countries where it has subsequently been staged. Memorable productions have seen actresses such as Glenn Close, Juliet Stevenson and Penelope Wilton play Paulina and actors such as Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman in the male roles.
A screen version was made in 1994 with Roman Polanski directing Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, and Stuart Wilson and with Dorfman sharing the writing credits with Rafael Yglesias.
The Factory Theatre in Newmarket is an absolute credit to the company. Everything is pristine, crisp and as clean as a whistle. The pavement outside the entrance is a comfortable meeting spot, the foyers, while small, can manage a full house, the ticketing area provides an efficient and speedy service – and there is wine, surprisingly good wine you’ll be pleased to note. As part of the foyer system there is a good sized display space taken up, in this instance, by Amnesty International, the Newmarket Business Association and other partners. All in all it’s a cosy and welcoming space.
Rick Cave’s set is a fitting representation of an upper middle class living space. It helps enormously that Phillip Dexter’s dexterous lighting design is one of the best I’ve had the pleasure of seeing for quite a time. It’s tidy, functional and has enough quirks to keep us interested as the narrative unfolds.
The opening performance gets off to a slightly disconnected start and it looked, for quite a few minutes, as though this prestige cast were trying just a bit too hard to convey the underlying tensions in Paulina and Gerardo’s marriage. It’s tricky, as husband and wife each lay the foundations for our first peep into their relationship, but each settles quickly into an admirable rhythm as the story begins to unfold, the relationship to unravel and, with the unanticipated arrival of third party Dr Roberto Miranda, the evening is well and truly set alight.
Henare is a sublimely good actor and totally at ease in the comfortable, upper middle class brogues of the mellifluous doctor. We find that he has a beach house, loves Schubert, is married with children and is, on the surface at least, a Good Samaritan. When the shoes come off, however, and he emerges bound from the bedroom in his socks and boxers and bleeding from a blow on the head we see a different creature altogether, a cowed, frightened man with every veneer of sophistication gone.
Tatiana Hotere is perfect as Paulina Salas and grows in stature and power as the evening progresses. At her best in the second half when any vestige of early tension has dissipated, she creates a wonderful portrait of a woman tormented by a past that includes kidnapping, torture and repeated rape.
Rounding out the trio and with possibly the most complex role of all, Edwin Wright as Gerardo Escobar is the quintessence of self-obsession: a successful lawyer; a man on the brink of a career opportunity that will change his and his wife’s lives forever. Wright rides the rail between loyal and loving husband, sexist clod and professional man particularly effectively. Also at his best once the first half groundwork has been laid, Wright drives the play where it needs to be driven and occupies a space between the two principle protagonists that slips and slides around like a jelly on an ice rink. It’s a clever performance.
All the actors serve John Callen’s excellent vision extremely well. There are times, post interval, when the theatre is saturated in that deep silence that only comes from the most intense concentration. My son, age twelve, spends most of the evening leaning forward, chin cupped in his hands, absorbed and motionless. The ride home, however, is a different story as he posits an abundance of potential conclusions to what he considers to be “a most enigmatic story” leaving us in no doubt that he’s thoroughly enjoyed his evening.
Dorfman, smart fellow that he is, has chosen a wonderful device to inextricably connect his characters and thereby allow us access to information without having to tell us. Franz Schubert’s ‘String Quartet No. 14 in D minor’, otherwise known as ‘Death and the Maiden’, is a favourite work of both Miranda – who, we are told, played it while repeatedly raping and torturing Paulina all those years ago – and of Paulina herself who now has difficulty listening to without the memories of being incarcerated flooding back. Miranda’s confession, we are lead to believe, will free her from this bond and allow her to, once again, fully enjoy the work. It’s a great stratagem and adds a layer to the text that is simply brilliant.
Composed in 1824 at a time when Schubert realised he was dying, the work has become a pillar of the chamber music repertoire. It’s the composers ‘testament to death’ and is based on a poem by Matthias Claudius that highlights the terror and the comfort of dying.
Away! Ah, Away! you cruel man of bone!
I am still young. Go, instead.
And do not touch me!
Give me your hand, you fair and tender creature,
I’m a friend, and do not come to punish.
Be of good courage; I am not cruel
You shall sleep gently in my arms.[iii]
The work links all three characters and makes them somehow equal in this exotic dance of death. Without stating it in so many words, Dorfman brings us constantly back to terror and death and the needle of his moral compass spins and spins throughout the play – and always, always to Schubert’s mesmerising tune.
The music also pitches the play for the actors – these are sophisticated lovers of classical chamber music so who is the monster, who is the victim and how can you decide which is which?
It’s a commendable production and will get even better as it plays itself in. The performances are rich and layered, the direction taut and revealing and always there is Schubert’s music playing somewhere in our heads.
I don’t normally like curtain speeches, they take me out of the experience of the play, but for once these worked. Callen, a masterful actor himself, eased us through the sponsors, praised his cast and welcomed the partnership between the company and Amnesty International. If ever a play might be chosen to celebrate the work of this fine organisation it is Death and the Maiden. Tireless, courageous, inexorable and inspirational.
So, see the play, enjoy the wine, thank the actors – and support Amnesty International in their indefatigable desire to rid the world of the horrors that lie at the heart of this inspiring work.
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*Miles Malleson managed to have his anti-First World War plays banned, Allan Monkhouse’s The Conquering Hero (1924) and Irwin Shaw’s Bury the Dead (1936) slip readily into the political milieu as do Joe Corrie’s In Time O’ Strife (1927) and Luis Valdez’s 1965 agitprop piece The Two Faces of the Boss, (Las dos Caras del Patroncito). Works on the dangers of fascism, such as David Edgar’s Destiny (1976) and C.P. Taylor’s Good (1981), fit too.
Aristophenes (Peace and Lysistrata), and Euripides (The Trojan Women) provide us with a good, but not exclusive, starting point way back when, and the 20th century gives us classics such as Sherriff’s Journey’s End, Brecht’s Schweik in the Second World War, Bringing it All Back Home by Terrence McNally, Robert Anton Wilson’s Wilhelm Reich in Hell and more recently No-No Boy by Ken Narasaki and Adam Brace’s Stovepipe. There are also playwrights whose names are synonymous with agitpop politics: Wesker, Hare, Peter Weiss, Augusto Boal, Caryl Churchill, David Edgar and Mark Ravenhill to name just a few.
[i] John McGrath, A Good Night Out, Popular Theatre: Audience, Class, Form (London: Nick Hern Books, 1991), ISBN 1-85459-370-6; The Bone Won’t Break: On Theatre and Hope in Hard Times (London: Methuen, 1990), ISBN 0-413-63260-1.
[ii] Berman, Jenifer. “Ariel Dorfman”. BOMB Magazine. Winter 1995. Retrieved 25 July 2011.
[iii] Poem by Matthias Claudius, translated P. Jurgenson, c. 1920 in Chaliapin (c. 1920), p. 40.
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer