Death and the Maiden
HANNAH QUINN feels this production didn’t quite do this dark play justice.
Corpus Playroom, 7pm, Tuesday 14th – Saturday 18th May, £6/5
If you’re looking for a light-hearted alternative to revision stress, this might not be the play for you. Death and the Maiden presents one woman, Paulina Salas, struggling to lead a normal life 15 years after being imprisoned, tortured and raped by a unnamed fascist regime. She becomes convinced that the doctor who’s given her husband a lift home is in fact her torturer. I won’t say explicitly what happens after this, because the shock is part of the fun – though fun is perhaps not the right word unless you’re a sadist – but it certainly doesn’t get any more cheerful.
The play challenges our conceptions of victimhood and reconciliation, asking us whether it is ever right to continue a cycle of violence and whether normality is achievable after such abuse. While the script is often a little too on-the-nose for my liking, there’s no denying its power. Unfortunately this production didn’t quite unleash this dramatic potential. Power remained firmly leashed – bark rather than bite, if you will forgive the horribly mixed metaphors.
It all starts so well. It’s a wonderful set: two rooms separated by a gauze curtain, the kind of intimate naturalism Corpus lends itself to. The constantly changing lighting is inventively atmospheric. The front door is used as an entrance, which implicates the audience in the action – one of the tensest moments in the play for me was the steady knocking at the door behind us. Unfortunately, the same level of intensity wasn’t maintained through the rest of the play, coming instead in stops and starts.
Ami Jones’ performance as the vengeful torture victim was accomplished, but to be really convincing as a woman confronting a man she believes has subjected her to terrible torture and rape is a tall order, and her performance often felt slightly detached, her emotions acted rather than felt. The same was true of Tom Stuchfield and Julian Mack, though as Mack was gagged for half the play he can perhaps be excused. All three performances improved immensely as the play went on, the penultimate scene in particular notable for a tension and power which sadly eluded much of the play.
Perhaps as a result of the variable acting, I never quite felt the full visceral horror of the play’s subject matter. I never thought I’d come out of a play wishing it had made me more miserable, but I did. When a play’s about torture and punishment and the (im)possibility of forgiveness I want to end up dazed, shocked, lost for words. There was certainly the odd moment in the play which almost had this effect. It’s impossible to hear a description of torture and rape in near darkness without being forced to imagine it for yourself – another instance where direction, script and lighting added more to the atmosphere than the actors quite managed.
Mostly, though, the play felt safe. Despite the intimacy of the space, and the all-too-relevant issues the play explores, the horrors felt distant and unreal. Intimate staging and some interesting directorial decisions weren’t quite enough to make a great play a great production.