A bound and hooded male prisoner is hauled around on a dog leash by a young woman. Disturbing shades of Abu Ghraib? It's more complicated here, for in Ariel Dorfman's play Death and the Maiden, the woman is the principal victim. Set in an unnamed post-totalitarian state (akin to the author's native Chile after the fall of Pinochet), the piece created a tremendous stir in 1991 with its shocking and provocative scenario: a woman who has at her gun-waving mercy the doctor who allegedly raped and tortured her 15 years earlier.
The subject has lost none of its urgency. In a society emerging from dictatorship, those who were persecuted under the old regime have to mingle with their persecutors. You can never know whether the hand you are now shaking might not be the one that attached electrodes to your genitals. Nor have the questions Dorfman asks become less relevant. Can there be reconciliation without retribution? Is it selfish to seek for personal justice if it risks jeopardising the delicate work of the democratic movement?
But, while absorbing, Paul Alexander's revival can't disguise the fact that the play depends upon a series of contrivances. Fate throws the supposed torturer into Paulina's clutches on the very day that her husband, Gerardo, is appointed to a commission investigating human rights abuses. If it gets out, her alarming do-it-yourself trial of a man she is convinced she can recognise from his voice and smell will be a gift to the right-wingers who are waiting to jump on the commission's activities.
Yes, it's a powerful conceit but, as the casting in Alexander's production serves to emphasise, Dorfman can only develop it by portraying an unbelievable marriage. Rupert Wickham's stuffed shirt of a husband seems to be a frightfully correct pillar of the new establishment. It's hard to imagine a single day of his 15-year union with Angelica Torn's compellingly damaged Paulina - her withering wit and hardboiled levity a cover for her shattered soul. This is a marriage of dramaturgical convenience. Even granted the wife's emotional instability, it's quite unnatural that Gerardo should leap to the conclusion that she is deluded in her suspicions.
In the original production, Juliet Stevenson and Bill Paterson ensured that you remained ambivalent in your responses to these characters. Here, I ended up disliking them both - the husband who tricks a full account of her ordeal out of Paulina so that he can brief the doctor on what to "confess" and the wife who outsmarts him. It's ironic that the most sympathetic performance comes from Leigh Lawson as the doctor. This is a play in which it is never finally established whether this medic committed the atrocities of which he is accused. Even in his climactic speech, Lawson skilfully keeps you guessing.
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