THEATRE / Maiden stakes: Still big in London, it's a wow in Warsaw and Polanski's interested. Rick Richardson on Death and the Maiden, the world tour

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SINCE the opening last month, people have been queueing at the Theatr Studio in Warsaw to see a new show imported from the West. It is the most expensive theatre ticket in Polish history, at around pounds 7. It is not a classic Broadway hit, nor is it a musical. 'This play is a theatrical world event concerning everyone everywhere,' says Gene Gutowski, who bought the Polish rights to the play after seeing it in London and New York. The play is Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman, who was in Warsaw for the eastern European premiere.

Sitting in a cafe in the square of Warsaw's Old Town, Dorfman says: 'I wrote this play about Chile, but this subject applies to many places in the world. Each audience inscribes its own history on this play. In Korea they think it is about Korea. In South Africa they think it's about them. The Germans can read it as an innuendo taking them back to Hitler or Communism.' It is this universal quality that is making Death and the Maiden a worldwide hit. Soon Roman Polanski, who is putting on a stage version in Paris, will make the movie.

The play stars Poland's two most famous actors, Krystyna Janda as Paulina, and Wojtek Pszoniak as her husband, Gerardo, with the film director Jerzy Skolimowski making his theatrical directing and acting debut as Roberto, the doctor.

Skolimowski, ingeniously, makes use of a revolving stage to move the action from dining room to bathroom to sitting room. As the audience's opinion of the characters shifts, the set itself revolves to reveal new perspectives.

Janda plays the woman who confronts the doctor she believes tortured and raped her 15 years before when she was a prisoner of the Pinochet dictatorship. 'When the Polish audience sees this play, they think of Poland, not of Chile,' she says, echoing Dorfman. What political crimes, including false imprisonment and torture, are to be forgiven in the name of 'democratic stability' is the question at the centre of Dorfman's fantasy thriller.

The Polish press have been quick to pick up on this theme, commenting that the strength of the piece is in how it sets up an indirect dialogue about the past for a society easing into democracy amidst continuing cries for vengeance against former oppressors. In a review under the headline 'Crime Without Punishment', the leading daily Gazeta Wyborcza acknowledged that the kind of discussion that takes place in this play has probably happened in every Polish household and still arouses intense passions. Perhaps for this reason, no high-ranking Communists were invited to the opening night.

To some extent the Poles, like Paulina and Gerardo in Dorfman's play, are divided between those who can only face the future by confronting the past, and those who want to move forward as quickly as possible without looking back. While the delicate balance between vengeance and forgiveness, detecting Communist crimes and democratic reconciliation - central to the drama of Death and the Maiden - are still explosive political issues, the prevailing attitude appears to be more Gerardo's than Paulina's. Paulina, who holds her suspected tormentor at gunpoint and who forces him to sign a confession to crimes the audience is never, beyond reasonable doubt, convinced he committed, finds little support from the actress who plays her. 'I didn't want Paulina to be right because I wouldn't want to live in a country where Paulina's approach wins,' says Janda.

When Tadeusz Mazowiecki (now the UN special envoy to former Yugoslavia) became the first democratic Prime Minister after the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989 he emphasised the need to draw a line between the Communist past and the future. This year, President Walesa has fought a fierce battle, resulting in the downfall of the Olszewski government in June, to keep so-called secret files from being used by nationalist elements to purge 'collaborators'. This hesitancy to witch-hunt is partly explained by the fact noted that unlike in Chile, where Pinochet is still a fresh memory, in Poland the Latin American brand of brutal torture ended in the 1950s following Stalin's death.

Poles developed their own coded theatrical language of protest during the post-war era and seem wary of a political play that is also a commercial success. Former government spokeswoman Malgorzata Niezabitowska found the play itself 'shallow', but a 'good thriller'. Leading TV arts presenter Alicja Rezlich-Modlinska thought that the play would do very well because it fulfilled the Polish need to 'feel oppressed'.

All in all commentators feel the play is 'necessary', a word used over and over again, as a direct theatrical examination of the past and as a pointer towards the theatre of the future. As the Gazeta Wyborcza review put it: 'We should appreciate the fact that the theatre wants to engage in this kind of discussion. And this is owing to Gene Gutowski, who bought the rights to the play. He found a first-rate director and a distinguished cast. Although in the end the spectacle is not totally convincing, it seems to be a harbinger of theatrical spring. This is the first appearance of a private producer who has not only artistic ambitions, but also familiarity with the business. Gutowski promises more performances. Let us hope they will take place.'

Continues to 18 Oct, then opens again in December (010 4822 202102).

'Death and the Maiden' continues in London at the Duke of York's Theatre (071-836 5122)

(Photograph omitted)