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.
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.
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.