Death and the Maiden

Wharf 1 Theatre, September 1

Death res
Susie Porter as Paulina. Photo: Jeff Busby.

Is morality an absolute or is it coloured by perspective, whether of culture, power, religion, wealth or passage of time? Is it merely a matter of convenience? What of retribution? In his exceptional 1990 play Ariel Dorfman shuns the obvious and obliges us to question our own behaviour were we Paulina (Susie Porter), tortured and raped 15 years before, who believes she has found her key tormentor.

Story-telling in which the past is hazy and the present plain is common enough. Part of Dorfman’s skill is sharply illuminating the past – Paulina remembers the garlic breath of her initial captor – and shrouding the present-tense outcomes in enigma.

It is a play of such electric tension as to be a sophisticated thriller, and it is here that this joint STC/MTC production directed by Leticia Caceres can lose its way. The requisite elasticity of pacing to ramp up, release and rebuild tension is found wanting, sometimes partly due to the mechanics of Nick Schlieper’s set, in which three identical white-walled rooms occupy a revolve. This is an ingenious solution in many ways, brilliantly served by his own lighting (with striking shadows), but it can also slow the action.

For the play to function we must believe Paulina would use the gun with which she threatens Dr Miranda (Eugene Gilfedder) and alarms her husband (Steve Mouzakis), and Porter certainly ensures we do. Her performance is stronger vocally than physically, however. Mouzakis is less convincing, although he does relish some of the play’s great lines, including, “We’ll die from so much past”. Gilfedder’s performance lies somewhere between the others’ in quality in what is a challenging role, mostly spent tied to a chair.

Too often sound and fury predominate over tautness, compromising the play’s cathartic impact. Yet so potent is Dorfman’s writing that it remains a gripping 90 minutes, enhanced by the Sweats’ brooding soundtrack (aided by Schubert), and is a vital reminder of what happens when regimes turn on their own people, and not just in Pinochet’s Chile.

Until October 17.