Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman’s 1990 play is a tense psychological thriller that is written to have its audience constantly questioning the validity of the statements made by its characters. This production hits all its marks but is a tepid interpretation at best.
Set in an unnamed country that has just formed a democracy after years of dictatorship, this three-hander centres around Paulina, a former political prisoner who was raped while in custody by a sadistic doctor who played Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ while he undertook his assaults.
Paulina (Susie Porter) and her husband Gerardo (Steve Mouzakis), a lawyer for the new government, live on a remotely situated property. When Gerardo’s car breaks down on the way home from visiting the president, a stranger, Dr Miranda (Eugene Gilfedder), gives him a lift home. Upon hearing Miranda’s voice in her home, Paulina is convinced the doctor is the same man who assaulted her so many years before. She detains him at gunpoint and proceeds to torture and berate the man for a confession of his crimes.
Gerardo fears that Paulina’s behaviour is simply paranoia and defends the doctor, contriving a method to save the man’s life while betraying his wife’s trust. What follows is a serious of stories and confessions that seem potentially unreliable from all sources, leaving the audience to try to determine whom has received the greatest injustice.
Dorfman’s script is no gentle exploration of the themes he introduces. It’s ugly, full of visceral language and tensely uncomfortable situations that are truthful to the circumstances of a victim meeting her assaulter from a position of power. Therefore, it’s disappointing that this production feels so underdone in its attack and tension.
Porter is engaging as Paulina, but feels restrained by the limp portrayals given by Mouzakis and Gilfedder. Director Leticia Caceres hasn’t forced enough dynamism out of the cast and has accepted a set design from Nick Schlieper that offers little in the way of creativity for scene construction. Built of one enormous, stark white ‘revolving door’ setting of three identical rooms, each connected by a door on either side and adorned with nothing more than a chair in the corner. The idea of this simplicity is fine, but it brings the focus so extremely onto performance alone – especially in the large Sumner theatre – that Caceres should have realised that a larger than life presentation was required.
Sound design and composition by THE SWEATS is as always excellent, but isn’t enough to breathe energy into this soft production.
What’s most disappointing though, is that this handsome, one-act play is highly worthy of attention and could have been handled so much better. Hopefully, by the time it makes its way to Sydney for its STC season, an overhaul of direction will see more impact created than is currently achieved in this incarnation. In the meantime, front row seats are recommended if you want to get some sense of the power of Dorfman’s script.