Ariel Dorfman's play, written in 1990, remains a chilling and unnerving experience. Though it covers an enormous amount of territory in around 100 minutes, the basic question it poses is how we should deal with those who torture other humans beings be it in the name of the state or merely on their own account. In fact, the question could also be widened to include any crimes against human beings and not just torture.
When we first meet Paulina Salas (Thandie Newton) she is cowering in her darkened kitchen, terrified of the unknown car that has just pulled-up outside her beach house. What we immediately realise is that she has a deep-seated fear which she cannot shake off. But when her husband Gerardo (Tom Goodman-Hill) enters we discover that his car broke down and he was given a lift by a passing motorist who he has invited back to return on another day for drinks. However, as they are settling down to sleep, the 'good Samaritan' who brought Gerardo home, Dr Miranda (played by Anthony Calf) calls at the house unannounced, whereupon Paulina recognises the visitor as a doctor who, along with others, raped and tortured her some years before. Convinced that Dr Miranda is the assailant, Paulina decides to take the law into her own hands and, armed with a gun, ties-up Miranda and proceeds to force her husband to help her prise a confession from him.
The three actors turn-in highly convincing performances which more than do justice to this intelligently-written and, at times, humorous script. As always with good writing, moments of humour allow the tension to be dissipated, at least temporarily, and for a gear-change to be more easily effected. Thandie Newton's Paulina makes a rapid but fluent transition from terrified wife to single-minded gun-toting gaoler/ interrogator and potential murderer. Tom Goodman-Hill starts off as the concerned partner, then becomes a terrified spouse when his wife starts her 'insane acts' as he calls them, before conniving with the bound and gagged Dr Miranda when Gerardo realises his only way of stopping his wife killing the doctor is to help him to make a confession his wife will accept. And Anthony Calf is Dr Miranda, who seems to support the efforts of the new government in its attempt to achieve some sort of reconciliation between the torturers and tortured, and then keeps us guessing about his involvement in the distasteful actions which Paulina accuses him of.
In the light of recent events, particularly in Libya and the demise of Gaddafi, the questions 'Death and the Maiden' raises are just as pertinent as they ever were. And they will continue to be important – crucial – for human beings for many generations to come because, though dictators and their invidious secret armies of torturers may come and go, the next one always seems to be waiting in the wings. What we have to decide is how we can deal with both the perpetrators of torture and their victims in a way which is humane, just and forgiving. And from this emerges the larger issues of how we can reconcile criminals and their victims in general. Ariel Dorfman's play offers no solutions and even keeps us guessing as to the final outcome of the events we witness. But it is a worthy and compelling piece which draws you in to both the internal story, and the wider implications it examines so poignantly and effectively.
"Dorfman's chosen form now looks a little too neat...It is a thoroughly well-acted evening"
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"As well as raising important issues, the play is also gripping, with much of the intensity of a first-rate thriller.."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph