Both a 1990 Royal Court play and 1994 film, I confess to being unaware of either prior to this revival of Death and the Maiden at the always lovely Questors Theatre. Sometimes such ignorance can be a good thing. After all, would it be fair to compare a production in a community theatre in the leafy West London borough of Ealing to its much bigger budget counterparts? Absolutely not.
For those like me new to this story, it is a highly nuanced thriller, filled with moral dilemmas about justice and revenge. A series of coincidences brings Roberto (Adam Kimmel) to the home of Gerardo (James Burgess) and Paulina (Nina Filtman). Matters escalate quickly as Paulina becomes convinced Roberto is the doctor responsible for her torture and rape 15 years prior, under the country’s former regime. What follows is a moral quandary as Paulina seeks justice by way of a confession from Roberto, whilst Gerardo is torn between loyalty to his wife and his belief in a fair legal system. His dilemma is not helped by the fact he is part of the commission to investigate murders and disappearances at the hands of the country’s former dictatorship – not the tortures though. This being the case, what happened to Paulina is, in her eyes, not seen as important enough to matter.
It’s great to see such a meaty play tackled in this community theatre. It would be all too easy to avoid such topics and pick from much safer options. And all credit to cast and crew, they manage to create a performance that justifies such risks, fully deserving of tonight’s full house.
But as enjoyable and thought provoking as it is, there are issues that need addressing. Most sinful of these is a distinct lack of tension. We should be on the edge of our seats, horrified at the descriptions of torture and rape endured by Paulina. What we should not be doing is laughing as she suggests the use of a broom on Roberto to replicate her rape. Yet chortle we do, because that tension is not there to disgust us and stifle our laughter. In fact, it only descends when Burgess’ Gerardo finally raises his voice late on, suggesting that the softly softly approach of director Richard Graylin is perhaps a little too easy going. Maybe he could have challenged his fine cast to show more aggression in their delivery?
Better use of light and sound could further help in ratcheting up the apprehension. The soothing sound of waves on beach certainly helps set location but it has no other contribution. The choice of more sinister underlying background noise would surely put us on edge and do wonders in changing the whole feel. Similarly, the well-lit set is fine for representing a sunny beachside home, but as we delve deeper into the interrogation of Roberto, why not dim those lights, use spotlights to focus us fully on him as he talks, or on Paulina as she waves her gun threateningly at him? This, again, could help focus our minds; stop us laughing out of place.
But faults aside, it’s a credit to Questors and to Graylin that they have put on this challenging play. They may not quite get it right, but it is still more than worth a visit to Ealing to get stuck into the moral maze that it presents. It’s great to see a play like this staged right on our doorstep (if you live in West London obviously), making for a great evening out, whilst avoiding the travel hassles (and prices) of a trip into the West End.
Written by: Ariel Dorfman
Directed by: Richard Graylin
Sound design by: Emerson Bramwell
Lighting design by: Andrew Whadcoat
Death and the Maiden plays at The Questors Theatre until 1 October 2022. Further information and bookings here.