29 October 2011

Death and the Maiden

Death and the Maiden was another joy brought to me via an email offer.

These come think and fast. Some I accept, most I refuse. And the ones that I do accept are usually spur of the moment decisions, "I fancy that" moments.

So when the time comes to go to the show the spur is long gone and forgotten. Part of the joy of the show then comes from trying to remember why I chose to go there in the first place.

The "there" this time was the Harold Pinter Theatre, which I been to twice previously this year when it was called the Comedy Theatre, and I suspect that the reason that I went was the "Olivier Award winning" tag.

On my previous visits I sat in the stalls but this time I was up in the circle. Even cheaper than that I went for a seat at the end of a row which had slightly obscured view. Giving up the right to see part of the stage where nothing happened saved me £10 on the seat next to me. Result!

Death and the Maiden is set in an unnamed Latin American country (the author is Chilean) that has recently emerged from military rule and is now stumbling towards democracy.

Part of this is a truth and reconciliation committee established by the new president. A leading human rights lawyer is appointed to the committee and this is a major career break for him. Immediately after the announcement he returns to his beach house and his wife.

He is delayed by a puncture but is rescued by a good Samaritan, a doctor, who has a spare and a jack (the lawyer's wife gave his away to her mother). The doctor turns up at the beach house to return something to the lawyer and is persuaded to stay for the night.

Things take a sinister turn in the morning when the wife confronts the doctor accusing him of being part of a group that had detained and raped her under the old regime. She then tries to extract a confession from him, tying him up and brandishing a gun to do so, while her shocked husband argues that proper justice, of which he is now a significant part, should be allowed to take its course.

The three then discuss, debate and dispute the past and how to deal with it.

The doctor proclaims his innocence throughout but give a couple of hints that he may be guilty even though the evidence against him is little more than consequential, such as his having a tape of Schubert's Death and the Maiden in his car which the wife remembers from her captivity.

As the words fly between them we learn more about the past, how it has changed them all, and we confront the difficulties of reconciliation for a nation through this specific example with its representatives of the wronged, the accused and justice.

The play takes place in one scene, the beach house, and has just the three actors. Thandie Newton (MI: 2), Tom Goodman-Hill and Anthony Calf (New Tricks) are all superb.

Death and the Maiden skilfully combines a plot that grows and surprises with a close examination of the political and personal realities of oppression. It may have been written about 70's Latin America but it translates easily to today and to the recent conflicts in countries like Libya and the Ivory Coast.

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