This stark new production sadly robs Ariel Dorfman’s modern classic Death and the Maiden of its considerable power. By Peter Craven.

MTC’s Death and the Maiden

Steve Mouzakis and Eugene Gilfedder in Death and the Maiden
Steve Mouzakis and Eugene Gilfedder in Death and the Maiden
Credit: Jeff Busby

Death and the Maiden is one of the greater plays of the past few decades and its representation of the repercussions of torture and repression in an unnamed South American country has not dated, even though the horrors of dictatorship in that part of the world are mostly a spectral memory. It was filmed by Polanski in 1994 with Sigourney Weaver as the woman who was raped and tortured and Ben Kingsley as the man she accuses of being her torturer. The film means that Ariel Dorfman’s play is part of the collective consciousness of people interested in drama, though the role of the avenging victim was also played on the Australian stage (for the Melbourne Theatre Company) by one of our finest actresses, Helen Morse, in 1993.

The new production by Leticia Cáceres – presented by the MTC until August 22 and then Sydney Theatre Company from September 2 to October 17 – is woefully inadequate: it loses the poignancy and power of the drama. It is fuzzy in its emotive outlines and shows no command of dramatic space. The upshot is bewildering, as it does nothing so much as testify to the nation’s major theatre companies being bereft in the face of a nearly contemporary classic.

Dorfman’s play is a brilliant three-hander that very powerfully highlights the ghastly inheritance of the horrors inflicted during such regimes as the reign of the junta in Argentina and, no doubt, Pinochet’s dictatorship in the Chile of Dorfman’s youth.

A lawyer is appointed minister of justice in a newly democratised South American government and is told by the president that it will be his duty to supervise a set of reconciliation trials – reminiscent of what Mandela did, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the helm, in South Africa – where those who committed the worst crimes during the reign of terror and iniquity (those who had people “disappeared”, who were guilty of murder) will be left in peace if they admit to their crimes before the courts.

The lawyer comes home to tell his wife the news and she succeeds in establishing that he has already accepted the position even though he is feigning to wait on her consent. She is by no means pleased that the tribunal will only attend to murder because she was subjected to less than terminal but grievously damaging atrocities herself. The husband also tells her he had some difficulty on the road with a tyre and a jack – part of the power of Death and the Maiden comes with the razor-sharp credibility of its incidental detail – and that he was helped by another motorist who stopped for him.

The Good Samaritan appears and is overheard by the wife, who recognises his voice as that of the doctor who whispered to her, who played Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” while electrodes were put through her and she was violated. Yes, he’s the man who quoted Nietzsche, the soft-voiced face of a satanic sadism that is as modulated and cultivated, as easygoing and gentle-sounding, as any professional in the audience. She rushes in armed with a gun, ties him up, and says that she will kill him if he does not confess to his crimes – a parodic heightening of reconciliation that also has a family resemblance to the torturer’s rack.

Her husband, the lawyer who is supposed to effect the country’s coming to terms with the terror and the wickedness, the sorrow and the pity of its past, is appalled but gets drawn into the central whirlpool of accusation and denial, of strategies and counter-strategies, to save life, to cling to mercy, to find a way through to an ideal or an actuality of justice.

It’s a brilliantly dialectical, supremely suspenseful piece of theatre, at the edge of cruelty but with an electrifying thriller-like tone that also allows for great arias of grief and terror and self-justification. The faces of vengeance and mercy, of malignancy and outrage and humane concern, are constantly shifting but with a deadly clarity of dramatic articulation, so that the audience, while being engulfed in great lakes of darkness and doubt, nevertheless has a sure sense of what is going on, what mountain or abyss of feeling is being conveyed at any given moment.

Cáceres directs this play so haplessly that she dumbfounds the dramatic imagination. The stage, representing a series of interconnecting bright, white rooms – empty and antiseptic like a hospital that can also turn into the annihilating nightmare of a torture chamber – revolves in practice with an effect of mindlessness in motion. Within each of these stark white cubicles, the actors – all three of them – are arranged like random clumps of limbs without dramatic purpose or point. As with other productions by this director, it is not the absence of a set that’s the problem – though one obvious option with Death and the Maiden is to give it a degree of naturalism by way of local habitation and name in order to domesticate the intimate humanity of its recollected circle of hell. But the effect looks random – it looks empty in the worst sense – as if the director has a diminished sense of how drama is dependent, residually but crucially, on spacial arrangement.

This directorial vacuousness was a debilitating element of her direction of Cock early last year and in The Effect, which defeated a cast that included Sigrid Thornton, William McInnes and Zahra Newman. If Cáceres’s production of Birdland was more successful – and it did have the advantage of an arresting script by Simon Stephens, though not one to equal Death and the Maiden – that may be because the younger cast took things into their own hands by some principle of mutiny.

Susie Porter as the woman torn, tortured and bent on a reckoning is tough, and talks as if she’s had a rough time with some creep on the town. She’s a good actress but the performance is without depth or nuance, like a not quite comprehending read-through. Porter is shrewd, bitchy, and all on the surface. There’s shrieking, there’s sniping, there’s a striking lack of affect or dramatic concentration. And the men get no further, if indeed they get as far.

Steve Mouzakis is whinily ockerish and one-dimensional. He looks nothing like a senior legal and political figure with differing impulses towards idealism and careerism, who is completely at sea about the irreconcilable tension between justice and mercy, let alone the imponderable of proof and all its burdens.

Eugene Gilfedder as the doctor is slightly more characterful but it’s still a recessive, underpowered performance in a play that calls for histrionic prowess of the highest kind. He’s sly, he’s affected, he’s upset. There’s no grandeur of effect, generalising how a type might act in extremis, and there’s certainly not the further step of individualising this.

Cáceres’s production of Death and the Maiden lacks the distinction of being an interesting failure. It is a production so mediocre, in the face of a dramatic text any competent trio of actors with a half-decent director should be able to ride and subdue with tremendous poignancy and power, that it just leaves us shaking our heads in wonder at what a poor thing our theatre can be.

Death and the Maiden is a play full of darkness and sparkle. It depends for its considerable effect on the actors all being appealing and sympathetic so that the audience gets the uncanny sense of atrocity and cruelty as a potential in their own souls. It is very urbane, very traditional theatre, and it has a claustrophobic Hitchcockian quality that is absolutely riveting in competent hands. You really wonder how it is that any experienced person of the theatre who stumbled on this production in rehearsal could lack the compassion and the interventionist intelligence to point out that almost everything that is happening in this attempt to stage the play is wrong.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 8, 2015 as "Dearth and the maiden".

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