Ariel Dorfman’s play, Death and the Maiden, is a fantastic vehicle for a star actress. Making her West End debut in the role of Paulina, a former political prisoner still haunted by trauma years later, Thandie Newton instantly establishes a febrile fragility. When chance leads to her encountering the man who tortured and raped her, she unleashes a manic power to exact a stunning revenge.
Newton is an avenging fury, waving around a gun in a most unnerving manner, but she is always articulate – tragically aware of her “irreparable” condition and focusing intensely on the play’s questions about justice and tolerance. Any fears about Newton’s inexperience in the theatre are banished by Peter McKintosh’s design, forcing her to the front of the stage as a commanding presence. This is a bold performance bringing out the pathos as well as the grotesque anger of Paulina’s impossible situation.
Newton is aided by strong performances from her co-stars. Anthony Calf plays Dr Miranda, the man she accuses, captures and interrogates, in chilling style. Toying with the possibility of his innocence as he begs for his life, Calf shows us a real person – not just a monster. Paulina’s husband is “caught in the middle” of them both: in conflict because he loves his wife but doubts her sanity, because of his high ideals, and also because his recent appointment as a political crimes investigator means that his career is at stake. Tom Goodman-Hill gives an outstanding performance. Rational and passionate by turns, he is tremendous.
Dorfman’s text is constructed to transcend its vague setting in some South American state and focus on themes of retribution and resolution. Alongside this, Jeremy Herrin’s production enhances the play’s potential as a taut thriller, and his direction grips like a vice, making this one of the most exciting nights out in the West End as well as one of the most powerful.
Until 21 January 2012
Photo by Ellie Kurttz
Written 20 October 2011 for The London Magazine