An honorary Oily Rag Theatre production. In 2016, Kristin and Shannon had a "test run" at producing their own show, under the guidance and banner of Moore Books SA, a company they had both worked with on several previous shows. This production was originally going to be the Australian premiere of a stage adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Preparations had well and truly commenced when Kristin got the bad news from the playwright that Hulu had got exclusive rights to the property for an upcoming TV series adaptation so our stage production would have to be cancelled. So a Plan B was required and quickly. Kristin has loved Death and the Maiden since high school, and made several unsuccessful attempts to apply to other groups to direct it for them. The production very fortunately fit the timeline and budget already in place for The Handmaid's Tale and actress Cheryl Douglas was amenable to staying on board for a totally different role in a totally different play.
Ticket sales may have been small but the audience feedback and critical response was positive beyond expectation.
Fifteen years ago, Paulina Salas was held in detention and subjected to prolonged sessions of
torture and abuse, blindfolded throughout the whole ordeal. Now the dictatorship that ruled her
country has fallen and her husband, Gerardo, has been appointed to a commission established to
investigate human rights violations committed by the old regime. But the commission will only
investigate cases that ended in death, the identities of the accused will be suppressed, and details of
what punishment they will face are... vague. On the night of his appointment, Gerardo gets a flat tyre on the way home and is assisted by a
friendly stranger. Paulina only has to hear this voice from the next room to be sure that the stranger
is one of her torturers. The next morning, Gerardo awakens to find his guest bound and gagged in a
chair and Paulina wielding a handgun. This, she tells her husband, is the first case in his inquiry. Ariel Dorfman wrote Death and the Maiden (1990) in response to events in his home country of
Chile. This award-winning play explores the effect of atrocity on the heart and soul, and asks how a
society can function when victims of former oppression are asked to co-exist with its perpetrators.
I hope you find watching Death and the Maiden as engaging and thought-provoking an experience as it was for us preparing it. Ariel Dorfman gives the setting of his play as “the present” and the location as “a country that is probably Chile but could be any country that has given itself a democratic government just after a long period of dictatorship”. To both acknowledge the origins of the play and honour the author’s intent, I chose not to excessively update the text itself but apply a more modern design aesthetic, hopefully emphasising that the difficult questions the play asks—both personal and political—are still all too relevant.
Thank you to Moore Books and my amazing cast and crew for being able to work to a production timeline and budget intended for an entirely different show. I am honoured and grateful to have been given the chance to present this wonderful and challenging play. After the initial disappointment, confusion and panic, sometimes Plan B turns out to be just as fulfilling!
DEATH AND THE MAIDEN by Ariel Dorfman
27-29 October and 3-5 November 2016 at Holden Street Theatres CAST:
Paulina Salas - Cheryl Douglas
Gerardo Escobar - Thorin Cupit
Roberto Miranda - Nick Buckland
Director & sound design: Kristin Telfer
Production designer: Shannon Norfolk
Lighting designer & light/sound operator: Tony Moore
"It is a work of gripping tension that powerfully illuminates a number of dark truths about the human race.
Director Kristin Telfer and her three-hander cast approach the material quite differently from the relentless doom-and-gloom that you may well expect out of a play dealing with the effects of rape, torture, and totalitarianism. The strain of black comedy in the text is successfully navigated, while the all-important element of teasing ambiguity is also well-handled, helping to make “Death and the Maiden” a richly intriguing experience indeed.
The performances contribute significantly to the atmosphere of uncertainty. Cheryl Douglas and Thorin Cupit, playing married couple Paulina Salas and Gerardo Escobar, give the characters – and their actions – an almost-farcical edge at times, but this becomes a curious strength of the production, rather than the incongruity that it might have been. Douglas’ range of emotional response, from sardonic quipping to silent, shadowy terror, is testament to this actress’ admirable versatility.
Nick Buckland is simply brilliant as Roberto Miranda, charismatic and expressive in all the right ways. The battle of wills that progresses between Douglas’ and Buckland’s characters results in the two performers bringing out the best in each other, continually elevating their characterisations to new heights (barring some slight lulls that are basically confined to the play’s midsection). Cupit’s portrayal of Gerardo is especially impressive at concealing his fiery streak until bursting forth with maximum effectiveness.
Tony Moore’s lighting could perhaps have afforded a little more in the way of atmosphere, but at least it’s never noticeably distracting or inappropriate. Shannon Norfolk’s production design is especially effective in its use of black cloth backdrops. Stage manager Joanna Webb’s contribution is invaluable and smoothly executed, under the circumstances.
The events and themes of “Death and the Maiden” can apply specifically to a certain country at a certain point in time, but they also have the power to stretch further and reach deeper than this; beyond the boundaries of culture and government, into the philosophical realm that leaves theatregoers of any nation keenly thinking about – and reflecting on – what they have just seen. A play with this much intelligence and integrity, presented in a way that is dramatically thrilling, really can’t afford to be missed."
"Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman’s masterpiece Death and the Maiden has had very few productions in Adelaide. In fact, I can personally only remember one, and that was about 20 years ago. So it is wonderful to see Moore Books give space to this brilliant and gut-wrenching work.
A three-hander, the play takes us through an evening when Gerardo Escobar, newly appointed to the Reconciliation Commission brings a stranger home. His wife, Paulina, recognizes the voice of the doctor who supervised her torture fifteen years earlier, under the military regime, and thus begins a night of psycho-political negotiation.
Nick Buckland is outstanding as Doctor Roberto Miranda. Dorfman, through this character, gives voice to the concept that totalitarian regimes brutalize those who have to enforce them, as much as those it seeks to oppress. Buckland is able to express Miranda’s fear and rage and present us with a believable voice for an unsympathetic archetype.
Thorin Cupit and Cheryl Douglas as Gerardo and Paulina respectively, are both competent, and play well off each other. However, they both seem to still be reading lines from a page, and as of opening night, had not really settled into their characters. I’m sure they will find more authenticity as the season progresses. They also both need to watch their diction, as many lines delivered in either stage whispers or shouts, were lost to the acoustics of the venue.
Director Kristin Telfer has pulled together a respectable production. She has avoided the temptation to over-block or fill the dialogue with too much stage business. This intelligent director allowed her actors to sit and talk, as Dorfman intended them to do. Many a less competent director would have been afraid to do this.
Sound, lighting and set design all under-scored the production nicely, except for the sudden stops to the sound, which broke the emotion. The final scene particularly needed a crescendo of Schubert (the eponymous Death and the Maiden), to allow the music, the feeling and the horror, to wash over us.
This play is about Chile. It is about dictatorship, torture and oppression. But most of all it is about humanity: what it is, who has and how we cling to it. It is a play which will always be relevant, because it is firmly grounded in the psychological that becomes the political.
If you want theatre that moves you, engages you, makes you think and makes you feel, then rush down to Holden Street Theatres for this gem."
Here in Australia it is easy to forget that countries on the other side of the South Pacific experienced harrowing state led brutality in the relatively recent past, and theatre like this is a powerful reminder of the importance of protecting basic human rights.
Though not specifically referring to any country, Death And The Maiden was written by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, and is generally regarded as being set in Chile – about 15 years after the overthrow of Pinochet’s military junta. It explores the wounds of a society that has lost any sense of mutual trust among its people. The small cast of three grapples with the instability of Paulina, a survivor of torture under the junta and who decides to take justice into her own hands. The play’s intrigue centres around the chance meeting between Paulina and someone she believes is one of her former torturers. But she is so traumatised by her past that it’s hard to believe her, and her high profile human rights lawyer husband finds himself in a moral bind.
Mundane rituals of daily life are laced with psychotic angst, the soothing sounds of the sea between scenes only seems to amplify the terror, and the melodic strains of Schubert’s Death And The Maiden become a sinister soundtrack of grief. All of this builds great dramatic tension while the audience tries to figure out whether Paulina’s behaviour is justified.
The cast do a fine job of maintaining the required level of emotional intensity but it’s a little on the long side, and may have benefited from an interval. It gets a little tedious toward the end as the unstable Paulina can’t decide what to do with her alleged former antagonist, but ultimately it’s somewhat ambiguous end seems appropriate.
Death And The Maiden is yet another example of intelligent theatre at the consistently high standard that Holden Street Theatres continues to provide."
Theatre Association of South Australia - Kerry Cooper:
"Death and the Maiden came to light in 1991; written by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman; it tackles the aftermath of a torturous regime under dictator Pinochet. Set in present times of a more democratic government, it deals with the aftermath of victims still living with the horror.
Cheryl Douglas plays former political prisoner Paulina Salas; her portrayal is intense and raw as she is forced to re-open past wounds. Husband Gerardo Escobar played by Thorin Cupit has just been appointed to head a commission into the human rights violations of this time. On his drive home he gets a flat tyre and his assisted by good Samaritan Doctor Roberto Miranda brought to life by Nick Buckland Buckland. Recognising the voice of the doctor who took part in her torture and rape; Salas unravels, bringing forth her need for vengeance.
Set in the home of Escobar, this psychological drama unfolds layer by layer bringing with it a story of unimaginable horror. Director Kristin Telfer is clever not to overplay, with the text delivering enough shock value. Casting well, the trio keep you transfixed with a story of confessions and lies. It poses many moral questions and leaves you wondering whether Salas has identified correctly one of her captors.
Buckland gives enough humanity to his performance to keep you guessing and Cupit does well to play the middle man, but the outstanding performance by Douglas leaves you shaken to the core. Wonderfully complimented by the intimate performance space, this drama is not to be missed.