Death and the Maiden, by Ariel Dorfman | Directed by Leticia Cacere

Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company | Wharf 1 Theatre, Walsh Bay, Sydney | Until 17 October

Death and the Maiden, by Chilean dramatist Ariel Dorfman, centres on the dramatic conflict between three main characters — Paulina Salas (Susie Porter), Gerado Escobar (Steve Mouzakis) and Roberto Miranda (Eugene Gilfedder). Through this trio, justice and reconciliation on both a personal level and a wider political context are dramatically explored. Set in an unspecified country that has recently transitioned from dictatorship to democracy, each character represents a specific group of citizens — the victims, the new order and the old order.

The drama begins tamely enough, with a domestic tiff occurring between married couple, Paulina and Roberto, over a missing car jack. Their arguing eventually switches into a discussion of Gerardo’s meeting with the country’s president, from which he has just returned. Gerardo has been asked to sit on a commission to examine human rights abuses under the recent military dictatorship, and he has accepted the position without consultation with his wife. Paulina, it is revealed, is still traumatised by her memories of being tortured and raped by interrogators working for this dictatorship.

As Paulina, Susie Porter is magnetic in her portrayal of the mentally scarred and constantly afraid victim, desperately seeking revenge. Graphically and effectively she conveys the horror of her experience as she takes justice into her own hands. Mouzakis, as her husband, is far more understated.  Although he is horrified and alarmed by the alteration in his wife and her manic quest for retribution, he appears to rationalise the situation from a lofty political perspective, whilst Gilfedder as the possible evil torturer successfully creates a sense of lingering ambiguity.

Nick Schlieper's stark rotating set adds an essential rhythmic pace to the events and it is deceptively simple, consisting of a number of austerely white, identical, unfurnished rooms that double as both the marital home and a prison cell.

Ariel Dorfman wrote this play 25 years ago and it has lost none of its resonance. In less capable hands it can veer into melodrama but Leticia Cacere’s competent direction subtly builds the tension and mostly succeeds in speaking to a new audience. Worth a look.

Above: Steve Mouzakis and Susie Porter. Below: Susie Porter. Images: Jeff Busby.

Steve Mouzakis and Eugene Gilfedder.