‘Death and the Maiden’ at The Harold Pinter Theatre

The renaming of a theatre is a confusing thing.  I still find myself caught out failing to recall which is which after a couple were rechristened about 10 years ago.  I learned most of their names and locations when I first came to live in London, and now no manner of practice will overlay the new nomenclature.

So unsurprisingly there was a degree of ‘where’s that then?’ and ‘when did that happen?’ when my friend told me that ‘Death and the Maiden’ was on at the Harold Pinter Theatre.  The answers to these are respectively Panton St (it’s the theatre formerly known as the Comedy) and ‘only recently’.

In fact this is the first production since the grand renaming, and is, according to some comment I’ve read, a suitable first, as Ariel Dorfman dedicated the play to Harold Pinter following his support for the project.

The drama is set in a remote beach house in an unspecified South American country some years into a fledgling democracy following years of hardline dictatorship.  One evening, Paulina’s husband’s car has a flat tyre; he is rescued by a passing driver, who brings him home.  On hearing the his voice, Paulina is convinced that the stranger is the man who had tortured and raped her 15 years earlier.  Although her husband is now a prominent lawyer, whose appointment to the country’s truth and reconciliation committee has recently been announced, Paulina takes the stranger hostage in order to extract her personal revenge.

The play raises big questions about forgiveness or revenge, the nature of truth and confession and the dehumanising effect of torture on both victims and perpetrator.  I first saw it about 20 years ago, when Juliet Stevenson tore her way through it, scorching into our consciences, and nothing about the play has diminished since, it has much relevancy now as it did then; subsequent events have made it even more prescient and pointed.  Thandie Newton doesn’t have the same force as Juliet Stevenson, (not many actresses do), but she does give a performance of both strength and fragility.

In checking my dates online for the original production I came across this interesting article in the New York Times.  Written in 1992 it compares and contrasts the contemporaneous productions of the play in the West End and on Broadway.  The essence of the piece is that in London the production was rougher, pared down and harsher, where in New York, in order not to alienate the audience, unused to the idea of state sponsored torture, it had to be smoother, swisher and with fewer spiky edges.  It would be hard to imagine such an article being written now, after the implication of the US in torture in recent conflicts, but I do wonder is some of the aesthetic taste differences highlighted might not still be relevant today.

It’s only on until 31 December, and I recommend you go.

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