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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
DEATH AND THE MAIDEN
at the Harold Pinter

PAIN UNSPEAKABLE
By JOHN NATHAN

  Thandie Newton and Anthony Calf/ Ph: Ellie Kurttz

This is the first offering since the Comedy Theatre was renamed after Harold Pinter. Forged in a process that involved rewrites being faxed between Chilean author Ariel Dorfman in New York and the play’s first director Lindsay Posner, who was then at London’s Royal Court, one account has it that Dorfman was none too happy with some of the cuts imposed by Posner.
 
Yet the result, first seen in 1991, is a modern classic. In Dorfman’s heroine Paulina, played here by movie star Thandie Newton in her stage debut, the psychological scars sustained by torture victims are laid bare. And through her lawyer partner Gerardo (Tom Goodman-Hill), the play also churns over the arguments about the kind of justice torturers deserve.
 
Jeremy Herrin’s revival is timely. When the play premiered at the Court with Juliet Stevenson playing the role of Paulina, nobody envisaged that 20 years later the countries that stand accused of using systematic torture would include Western democracies. It may be that Herrin hoped that setting the action in designer Peter McKintosh’s chic concrete and glass beach house – more space-age housing project than isolated coastal retreat – that the play’s relevance would be broadened to countries other than post-Pinochet Chile, the place and period that inspired Dorfman's place.
 
But the result here is sanitized. There is nothing on the walls that suggests Paulina and Gerardo’s politicized tastes, no detail that suggests we are in a country that is stepping out of the shadow of dictatorship. No one smokes. It is an old truism, but it is the particular that makes a play universal. And here, we are nowhere in particular.
 
But to the plot. Gerardo arrives home with unexpected houseguest Roberto (Anthony Calf). Roberto has given his host a lift after spotting Gerardo’s on an isolated road next to his broken down car. Paulina recognizes the stranger’s voice as belonging to the doctor who monitored and contributed to her torture. That night, she knocks him out, ties him to a chair and, brandishing a pistol, attempts to elicit a confession, much to Gerardo’s horror. What follows is an impromptu kitchen trial in which an entire nation’s victims and perpetrators are represented.
 
Newton is fiery and fragile. But it is a controlled performance rather than a heart-rending one. You don’t get the sense of suppressed, volcanic turmoil that Juliet Stevenson transmitted in Posner’s 1991 production. And you have to wonder about the wisdom of giving such a demanding role to an actor for her West End debut. Physically, however, Newton’s frame is so small, girlish even, the descriptions of Paulina’s brutal experience are all the more shocking for that.
 
Goodman-Hill is similarly underpowered. His Gerardo is more affronted than devastated when Paulina gives him her first full testimony about what happened. A career lawyer who has been appointed head of an investigation, Gerardo's eye is never taken off the new job that Paulina’s action inadvertently threatens. Calf is terrific, displaying just enough malevolence and civility to keep us guessing about his guilt or innocence.
 
Yet this far-from-definitive production of Dorfman’s three-hander still provides as tense an evening as you will currently find in the West End. And unhappily, its themes are as pertinent as they ever were.

 


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