Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden is a play which draws upon Dorfman’s experiences. Born in Argentina in 1942, he was later forced to flee to the USA with his family. He then went to Chile. A supporter of the Chilean president Salvador Allende, he was exiled after the coup and Pinochet’s rise to power. Dorfman began writing the play in the 1980s but it was not until the 1990s that he completed it, at the end of the dictatorship. Thus the play encapsulates the heaviness of time, this sense not only of changing political landscapes, but changes wrought on individuals. Even after the fall, Pinochet retained control over the armed forces, ensuring investigations into crimes under the regime would not end in prosecution. Death and the Maiden has won awards for best play across the globe. In the play, Paulina Salas suffers after having been raped and tortured under a dictatorship, refusing to give up her husband’s name. Her husband, Gerardo Escobar, is part of a commission investigating the regime’s crimes. When Gerardo’s acquaintance Roberto Miranda comes to their house, Paulina believes he is the same doctor who tortured her 15 years before and decides to force a confession.
The production is directed by Zoe Biles and Daisy Hale, with scenic art produced by Ellie Bridger, sound by Omar Peracha and tech by Stephen Hutt and Grace Lievesley. Paulina is played by Fiona Kingwill, Gerardo by Thomas Barry and Roberto by Edd Riley.
Zoe Biles told me how, studying the play at college, and having seen a production at the Halpern which brought it to life, she knew she wanted to direct it. She became very interested in the Chilean revolution, saying “three million people died and we simply don’t know about it”.
I also asked Zoe about the importance of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden in the play. The music has been recorded live with four instrumentalists by Omar Peracha. Zoe said: “In the 20th century sensory deprivation was widely used as a torture method, music particularly: turning the beautiful into something ugly.” This is encapsulated in the line from the play “is this the very cassette Doctor, or do you buy a new one every year to keep the sound pure?” In addition to this, as Zoe points out, “there is the story of the music itself, and its movement, linking to the representation of a woman raped by death”.
The internal conflict both in and between characters about their sense of justice is brought out in the set design, which was the vision of Daisy Hale. Ellie Bridger, scenic artist, called the inside space a “glossy, hyper-reality”. Indeed, in some ways, it borders on the surreal, asking the audience to question appearances and the private against the public self. (Notably, the idea of “skin” recurs in the play.) At the opening of the play, the sounds of the seaside and connotations of the open air are contradicted by the darkness of the scene: the lighting, furniture and walls are dark. The white frame around the domestic space is constructed of piping tied to the ceiling with rope. It seems its own self-contained space, perhaps representative of the imprisoning effect of the political on the psychology of individuals, whilst the ropes holding it to the ceiling suggest the instability of embryonic democracy.
The black and white theme appears to be symbolic: Paulina wears a white dress and the domestic space has a white lino floor whereas the space outside is black. I would emphasize the artistry of Ellie Bridger’s painting of the back wall, an activity she called “therapeutic” – a resonant word in relation to the play. The scene depicts the view of the sea from the porch, in black, with a shaft of white running through the centre which makes the audience constantly aware of horizons and experiences which colour ambitions. Black and white however are not equated with particular characters only; Gerardo and Roberto are placed on black chairs and Paulina on the white but the characters move as the play progresses, reflecting the light and darkness in everyone.
Death in the play is predicated on the lack of voice. In Paulina’s words: “the commission only deals with the dead, with those who can’t speak. And I can speak… I’m not dead, I thought I was, but I’m not”. Yet we hear Gerardo’s truncated speech in response to Paulina whose voice the audience can’t hear. Gerardo is also cut off by Roberto, who commands both sides of the stage, by pacing, reflecting the movement between self-censorship and censorship of others. Paulina takes her white hairband and uses it to gag Roberto. The deliberate way in which Fiona Kingwill portrays this made it seem to me very symbolic of Paulina gaining a voice, of confronting death.
The audience is unsure at the end of the play whether Roberto is guilty of the rape of which Paulina accuses him. Edd Riley said he wanted to keep the character as ambiguous as possible: “it is easy to fall into the trap of guilty, but the potential for guilt comes from the script, I have to play the innocence”. For example, the line “one never shares one’s toothbrush… or one’s woman”, becomes “there are two things you must never share, one is a toothbrush”. Roberto’s presence tied up on stage for the majority of the play haunts the audience: we imagine Paulina in his position as she re-enacts the things said to her. However, we also see Roberto’s suffering and fear, his helplessness, very convincingly acted by Edd.
Paulina’s character was very well developed by Fiona. Her sarcastic comments bring out a history of resentment between the couple. However, Fiona also reveals Paulina’s complexity, and the love underlying everything, and a past which irrevocably effects the present and must be voiced. Fiona told me “the problem with the news is that we don’t hear from the people who were there. The word ‘sick’ is used quite often in the play. But it is a critique on views of post-traumatic stress. Paulina wants to say that you can be ill and still know ‘I’m right’. I think for a male writer to write a female character of such depth is important. I have done lots of research into sexual crimes against women. But as well, I feel the focus of her pain is that part of what it means to be a woman has been taken from her; she can’t have children, she can’t make love. So I have to think of this every time I look at Edd”.
Gerardo’s character is equally important in the play because he mediates between Paulina and Roberto but is also an individual with a complex psychology of his own. He questions ideas of democracy, masculinity, justice, truth and the relations between people, without which there would be no play. Indeed, Thomas Barry said his understanding of Gerardo changed as rehearsals progressed: “I began thinking he was the simplest character but then I realised it was deeper. He is out of control, caught between forces. He goes through physical and metaphysical contortion”.
The way in which the fourth wall is broken by Gerardo in the final scene is particularly powerful in traversing the boundary between fiction and reality, as was the recorded voice-over with the disembodied confession. In the final scene, the audience are seated facing each other with the action taking place between. I feel this reflects how the play mediates between personal and other senses of justice. But also, this relates to the continued relevancy of the play to a modern audience. The opening stage directions say that it is set in “a country which is probably Chile, but could be any country that has given itself a democratic government after a long period of dictatorship”. In a recent article in The Guardian entitled Death and the Maiden’s Haunting Relevance, Dorfman raises the question of “How to judge those who abused power without destroying the fabric of a reconciliation necessary to move forward?” “Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iran, Nigeria, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Iraq, Thailand, Zimbabwe and Libya. In fact, because torture became widespread after the criminal attacks on New York on 9/11, because the most powerful nations in the world, and particularly the US, justified or were complicit in egregious abuses of human rights in order to make themselves feel safe, because they unleashed terror to fight and avenge terror, it could be ventured that the core dilemmas of Death and the Maiden are more relevant today than they ever were”. “Death and the Maiden plunged its finger into the wound” he writes, yet this is needed to move towards healing; perhaps Paulina is also a metaphor for Dorfman’s role as writer of this play, and, by extension, the role of all writers.
Zoe Biles said “what Dorfman does so beautifully is ask the question, because no matter how many times, we are never going to know how to solve it”. The question is also asked beautifully at the end of the production, when Paulina, whose post-traumatic stress is visibly continuing, stands with Gerardo on the stage at the commission, and Roberto is directly opposite. It is a scene as resonant as the previous scene with the two weeping and shaking before each other was climactic. They stare at each other and the stalemate remains unresolved as the lights go out. This production was in many ways one of the most profound of those I have seen at the Drama Barn. This was due to the accomplishments in the choice of play, the set design, the direction and use of space, lighting and sound, and the performances of the cast, which, combined, have rendered it a production I will not forget. I urge everyone to see it.