Review: Death and the Maiden – Sydney Season (STC/MTC)

Leticia Cáceres has a chillingly cerebral directorial vision for Death and the Maiden, Ariel Dorfman’s 1990 play written from and premiering within the still profusely bleeding wound of Chile’s devastating Pinochet regime.

Gerardo (Steve Mouzakis), recently appointed to a human rights commission investigating a previous (unnamed) regime’s horrors, gets a flat tyre on his way home to his wife Paulina (Susie Porter). The doctor who assists him, Roberto Miranda (Eugene Gilfedder), has a voice that floors Paulina. It sounds like the voice of the doctor who coordinated her kidnap and torture.

Steve Mouzakis and Susie Porter in Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company’s Death and the Maiden. Photo by Jeff Busby.
Steve Mouzakis and Susie Porter in Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company’s Death and the Maiden. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Paulina is broken from this experience and she breaks anew when she hears Roberto; she corners him and ties him up in the middle of the night, holds a gun to his head, and tells her husband that they are putting this man on trial, the two of them. Gerardo’s new, official, investigation is only into those who killed their victims, and Paulina is still alive; she says they must, therefore, take this injustice and reckon with it themselves.

Cáceres’ production shows her to have the exacting, distant calm of a clinician: she presents the fact of the horrors Paulina has suffered, the complications of living through and beyond terror for Paulina and Gerardo, and the impossibility of catharsis for anyone via retribution, with a cold absence of compromise. There is no need, in Cáceres’ take on the play, for emotional breakdowns, for wracking sobs, for hysteria. There is only truth, there is only psychological trauma, there is only reality. There is no romance, no release.

Her Death and the Maiden is relentless, largely dispensing of the did-he-or-didn’t-he driver in the (simply solid) script. It doesn’t matter, ultimately, if Roberto Miranda, tied up and gagged in Paulina and Gerardo’s house, was the perpetrator. What matters is that someone was. That many men were. That the regime might be over but the men are still there, at parties, in supermarkets, in parks, living amongst the people they tortured. What matters is that these three people are irrevocably changed by horror, and that it is not over because now a commission is looking into it.

Susie Porter in Death and the Maiden. Photo by Jeff Busby.
Susie Porter in Death and the Maiden. Photo by Jeff Busby.

The design by Nick Schlieper is, confrontingly, a white, revolving void: three identical rooms without decoration save a wooden chair. Harsh light, reminiscent of surgical fluorescence, bring the actors into sharp relief. There is nothing soft about this production anywhere.

The characters are suspended in a place that could be here and now in our city or could be nowhere. Speaking with their own accents and costumed (by Anna Cordingly) in neutral, capable shades, these three characters become a representation of all the world’s current cruelties: of every secret regime, every use of torture in the most advanced, or not, of nations, of lies, and cover-ups, and abuse that doesn’t end just because now, publicly, it’s being frowned upon.

Susie Porter’s Paulina is ragged-edged and ravaged by her past. She is ice, and she is calm, and she is hot and furious and terrified; it’s a layered performance she centres in pragratism. Mouzakis, as her husband, is softer-pitched and largely ineffectual, redoubling the focus back to Porter and Paulina. This is a canny directorial choice; his performance that lends more genuine agency to the woman who is a victim than the script ever really does. Gilfedder, too, fades against Porter’s steel presence. This production is Paulina’s. That won’t please everybody as these performances may read as flat, but this is consistent with the production’s overall vision.

And that vision is apt, and that vision is perhaps the one we need. The sad truth of our reality is that there are so many horrific, institutionalised, sanctioned injustices every day in the world.  Cáceres blank-space, focused restrained context for this play is powerful because we can fully consider the breadth of human-on-human devastation, knowing it spreads well beyond Pinochet and continues, ceaselessly.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and is the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

One thought on “Review: Death and the Maiden – Sydney Season (STC/MTC)

  • Thx Cassie, this is a really excellent review of what I think is a very powerful production which I saw last night. Having looked at other reviews of the earlier/same MTC production, I think those reviewers (Woodhead in SMH and Richardson in the Daily Review) just somewhat missed it (or maybe the production now has more miles on the clock so to speak, which can be a problem with first night reviews). Not to mention your colleague Peard on this publication, who appears to claim in her review some knowledge of how torture feels etc. Woodhead and Richardson both to varying degrees quibbled with the 3 part essentially identical white
    revolve. Not too sure they actually had a better idea however. The clinical nature of it, which you refer to, certainly worked for me.

    I saw the original STC production 22 years ago it seems, in 1993, and did not remember that Helen Morse was supposedly in it. So I cannot remember anything else about the setting of that production (other
    than no revolve). It is inevitable that Caceres in this production will have looked at how other directors handled the staging of what is still a very powerful script. Although I have not read the script, it’s about the play stupid, and whether characters are not played “strong enough” or quibbling about stage revolves is ultimately neither here nor there. I think you have accurately identified that this all might have actually been a conscious directorial choice. It’s a pity that other critics have not been as astute as I think you have been in identifying these aspects. This is why this play is still a lesson for the ages so to speak. This production certainly does
    not diminish the ultimate power of the script, which does leave us appropriately dangling as to a “resolution”. It is relatively easy to find online an opinion piece by the author Ariel Dorfman in the Telegraph in October 2011 (on the 20th anniversary of the play’s first production). This emphasises the continued contemporary and political relevance of the play and why I found this a very powerful production and very well worth revisiting.

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