Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Death and the Maiden ***

The newly christened ‘Harold Pinter Theatre’ may live life for a while as 'The Theatre Formerly known as Comedy' but it’s making an effort to fit nicely into the history of the West End. Ariel Dorfman’s Pinter-esque thriller was originally dedicated to the man himself after he had helped it to its premiere in London 20 years ago at the Royal Court. It was received well, winning the Olivier Award for Best New Play in 1992 and, two years later, being adapted into a film directed by Roman Polanski. Now it once again returns to its roots in London and with Harold Pinter.
With the apparently perfect-fitting play to open the new chapter in the theatre’s history, the stage is set (yes, pun intended) for a grand reopening. I can only think that the pressure took its toll on director Jeremy Herrin and he bottled it; it certainly wasn’t grand, though it was fair enough try.
The story itself revolves around the character of Paulina who was a tortured and raped political prisoner in an unidentified country who believes the man her husband has invited to stay the night in their home is the ringleader she only knows as ‘the Doctor’ (not, I repeat NOT Doctor Who). Holding him captive, much to her husband’s annoyance (big shot lawyer that he is). She proceeds to put her captive on trial and the play revolves around whether or not the man is innocent. Since there are no sure indications in the script, the tension and catch of the play centre on the nuance of the performance. Unfortunately, this is where the house of cards falls down.
Death and the Maiden also acts as Thandie Newton’s West End debut. She treads the boards with poise and a confidence in her character and what her character believes to be the truth and this gives her a cool and collected manner. This, however, causes problems when she must then be a bit less in control, a bit more tortured and more furious and frustrated. Her performance in full lacks a depth that is necessary for the piece and is thus somewhat disappointing.
Despite her coolness throughout, her having a gun is by no means a compelling justification as to why the two men have to play along with what is little more than a sadistic game. If Gerardo was half as powerful as it appears he should be then he would have diffused the situation at the beginning and spare us the second hour. Her slight build is also a problem. The opening sees her running about with a gun that is almost comically too big for her to handle easily and the moment of her ‘recognition’ of Miranda’s voice went by barely noticed.
Tom Goodman-Hill as Gerardo is assured and dominant, fulfilling the position of a man used to power and keenly aware of his morality and ethics well. He is the character that tries to make the audience aware of the moral dilemmas in the play but his willingness to succumb to his wife undermines him and thus the dilemma itself. He is a strong character but we see very little of this strength as he is always on the back foot without a strong enough justification for why that is the case.

Anthony Calf was the victim of over-cautious direction. The whole play hinges on the unanswered debate over his innocence or otherwise. There was never really any doubt along the way that he was innocent in this production. Calf’s Miranda needed to be much more sinister and unpleasant, much more of a dual personality and a dark person. The points are there for exposure in the script. Why did he come back when he knew whom Gerardo was? Why does he like Schubert? There are all sorts of points and buttons that are ripe for development but there just isn’t any. In this production he’s just a hapless good guy caught in the rage of a madwoman’s subconscious. This makes the play somewhat pointless all in all.
There is no thrilling aspect to the thriller; there is no sense of darkness, of pitch and moment regarding the previous regime, though all the material is evident in the text. None of it is translated onto the stage and the play falls flat as a result.
The set is simple and nice, the lighting effects of the cars pulling in and out are good and I enjoyed them, the effects when the gun was fired were loud enough to give the dramatic moment what it needed and everything else seemed to have a place and purpose, which is good. It also looked pretty swish as well, feeling like a holiday home but it didn’t give any indication of place. The script appears to be a nondescript Latin American country but the set could have been America or any country with a ‘President’ at all, which I’m not sure is a good thing. It needed a bit of grounding as the text itself isn’t universal enough to justify the attempt.
If you know the play already, and have an interest in it, it may be worth going along to see this production in case it throws light on a scene or conversation that you hadn’t seen before but other than that I would struggle to say it would be a good way to spend your hard-earned cash in this economic climate. If you don’t know the play already, I would strongly advise not going as it will likely give you a bad false impression of what can be done with the script.
Competent if nothing else (and not much else besides).

Written by Ariel Dorfman; Directed by Jeremy Herrin; At the Harold Pinter Theatre; Starring Thandie Newton, Tom Goodman-Hill, Anthony Calf; Runs from 13 October 11 - 21 January 12.


John Ord (26/10/2011)

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