What is truth? Death and the Maiden review

Death and the maiden
Play | Death and the Maiden

Review by Penny Mulvey

“People can die from excessive doses of the truth.”

These words, uttered by Gerardo Escobar (Steve Mouzakis) in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s latest production, Death and the Maiden, speak into the very heart of the play.

Playwright Ariel Dorfman wrote this play as a tribute to those people struggling to tell the truth in a country that wanted to forget, as Chilean society sought to return to democracy after 17 years of oppression under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Dorfman, a cutural advisor to the Allende government, was forced into exile in September 1973, as the Allende government was overthrown and people began disappearing. His life was one of exile and return.

His Jewish parents settled in Argentina in the 1920s as children after their families fled war and repression in Eastern Europe. Dorfman was just a boy when his family was forced to flee the fascist junta of Peron in 1944, settling in New York. The McCarthy-era focus on those with leftist politics led the family to move to Chile in the mid-’50s. It was here he found his identity and put down roots, only to be wrenched away again.

Death and the Maiden is named after a piece of music by Schubert, music that was played incessantly by Paulina Salas’s (Susie Porter) chief tormentor when she was abducted at gunpoint 15 years before. Paulina is a broken woman. Prior to her abduction, she had been studying medicine and involved in student politics. After months of relentless brutality Paulina was released, a woman reduced to fear and obedience.

That is until the night unfolding before the audience. The night her husband Gerardo, a high flying lawyer just named as one of the commissioners investigating murders committed by the Pinochet regime, brings home a stranger.

Paulina hears his voice from another room and she knows, this is her torturer. This is the man who destroyed her life, leaving her cowering in their house, afraid of shadows.

Eugene Gilfedder plays the stranger, a Good Samaritan who rescued Gerardo, stranded in the countryside with a flat tyre, no spare and no jack. He is a doctor, with a family and a love for classical music. How could such a man also be capable of inflicting such horrors and degradation on another human being?

The ensuing drama takes the audience into a place of confusion, anger, uncertainty and anguish. Paulina’s husband does not believe her. The stranger defends his innocence. Could Paulina be wrong? It was a long time ago. Is she just desperate to blame someone, and this person’s muffled voice from another room fed her nightmares?

How could her husband respond in such a way, given that he is about to sit on a commission and hear people’s stories of that time? Is he merely protecting his political career?

Is Paulina being abused all over again by these men’s rejection of her story? Is the stranger a pawn in a family domestic?

This is a powerful and personal play. Dorfman struggled to write it initially. It was too close. But it is also a universal story. It taps into both important political themes, as well as our personal struggles, our cultural and gender biases, and the big philosophical question of what is truth. You decide.

Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman, The Sumner Theatre, 18 July to 22 August 2015

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