Review by Nigel Smith
Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden is an enigmatic play that first mesmerised audiences at London’s Royal Court in 1991 and has since seen several notable revivals and a film adaptation. This week producer Siobhan Noble brings it to Liverpool’s intimate Hope Street Theatre under the forensically focused direction of Margaret Connell.
It is a famously enigmatic work, in which we learn that Paulina Escobar is rebuilding her life, having been previously raped by captors during a long period of dictatorship in her unnamed home country. She never saw her attacker’s face but, when her husband Gerardo receives a visit from a doctor who helped him at the roadside, she recognises the voice.
Paulina goes on to restrain the stranger, Roberto Miranda, in an effort to extract a confession from him. But when the confession comes is it the truth or just written to secure his release? The success of the piece rests in keeping us guessing as to whether Miranda is the actual perpetrator of the crime, and the impartial stance of Gerardo, who is a lawyer, helps to remind us that his guilt is never fully established. We are left questioning a gamut of moral and emotional rights and wrongs, all of which are sadly all too relevant in our increasingly fractured society.
Hope Street’s small performance space heightens the claustrophobic nature of the narrative, as the action plays out on Rebecca McGrory’s asymmetric set, in which we see the living room and garden of the Escobars’ home. Phil Perez gives a solid reading of Gerardo, trying in vain to control the emotional temperature of the situation. Pete Cuffe is Roberto, who has the challenge of delivering much of his performance bound and gagged, and his ability to convey everything from mortal fear to plain exasperation with facial gestures alone is remarkable.
But it is Emma Bird who takes the laurels in this production for her simmering portrayal of Paulina. From her initial terror in recognising the doctor’s voice to despair as she tries to get her husband on side, Bird is a mesmerising presence on stage. In an emotionally draining performance she never allows her character’s tension to relax for a moment.
Music and sound design by Max Wilson maintain the atmosphere across scene breaks, with the passage of time reinforced by Peter Mitchelson’s colour-saturated lighting.
There are very few moments where Connell’s direction fails to maintain the pace, and her fascinating theatrical twist in the closing scene leaves us in the audience taking a long hard look at ourselves.
Death and the Maiden is at Hope Street Theatre until 14th September.