In the hands of the leading lady
By Bradley Storer
The opening image of Melbourne Theatre Company‘s highly anticipated production of Death and the Maiden, the intensely political and unsettlingly violent work of Ariel Dorfman, is striking and instantly ratchets the tension to maximum level – a lone woman in a darkened room, stirred to action by the sound of an approaching car, creeps through the darkness and conceals herself in the corner, the revolving stage giving an eerie flipbook-like effect as the woman slowly reveals a gun. In this single image the blurred boundaries between the domestic, civilisation and the dark savage underbelly of human nature which Dorman sets out to explore is already laid out for the audience.
Set in an unnamed country, inspired by post-fascist Chile but potentially any country emerging from under tyranny, Death and the Maiden examines the slow recovery from politically-sanctioned atrocity and horror on both the personal and national level through the lens of differing characters. The trio presented include a victim of the former fascist regime and its unspeakable methods, Paulina (Susie Porter), her husband Gerardo (Steve Mouzakis), the lawyer who is now part of the government committee dedicated to uncovering the atrocities of the former regime, and Roberto (Eugene Gilfedder), a doctor whose unexpected incurrence into the lives of Paulina and Gerardo sets off the whirlwind of terror and violence which engulfs the rest of the play.
Unfortunately, only in the performance of Porter does the extent of Dorfman’s bleak vision truly come to fruition. She morphs from an uncertain and flighty creature, beset by unknown fears, into a facade of iron-hard determination and self-righteous fury that maintains the central ambiguity of Paulina’s character: whether she is a victim of horrific trauma and gruesome torture that has driven her to insanity, or a woman empowered to throw off the chains of victimhood and become an terrible avenging angel against her former tormentors.
Mouzakis and Gilfedder do not fare as well, their earlier scenes which communicate the bulk of the work’s political background sapping all of the tension and drive from the performance. They improve as the play goes on but sadly lose momentum whenever Porter leaves the stage. Nick Schlieper‘s revolving set does much to symbolically comment on the cyclical nature of violence and victimhood, but slowly loses its impact as the play goes on – its use in Gerardo’s final monologue leaves the last mystery of the play more confusing than intended.
Perhaps this production of Death and the Maiden is not the definitive one, but the performance of Porter is to be commended for its bravery, delving into the darkest and rawest areas of the human psyche that Dorfman is preoccupied with, bringing out the violence and cruelty that Is suggested to lurk within us all.