What would you do if the man you believed ordered your torture was sat in your home, sharing a brandy with your husband? Ex-political prisoner Paulina Salas knows exactly what she’d do.
Psychological thriller Death and the Maiden was written by Argentine-Chilean-American novelist, playwright, essayist, academic and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman.
He wrote it to highlight the injustices of human rights crimes in the fall of any military dictatorship. Forced to flee Chile after the Pinochet coup in the 1970s, he didn’t have to look far for inspiration. It won an Olivier for best play in 1991 and was produced on Broadway. It was made into a feature film and revived on London’s West End in late 2011.
Set in an unnamed country recovering from such a regime, Paulina Salas’ husband Gerardo Escobar (Andrew Fettes) is heading an investigation into past human rights abuses. She’s convinced his new friend, Dr Roberto Miranda (Keith Hill), was the unseen man who supervised her abuse. Seeking justice, she captures the doctor and puts him on trial.
It’s being staged by Norwich-based Baroque Theatre Company, which was founded in 2010. Past tours include the well-received Great Expectations, Veronica’s Room, Kindly Leave the Stage and Up Pompeii. We spoke to founder and show producer Claire Bibby, who also plays Paulina.
Paulina suffered horrific physical and mental abuse while a political prisoner, she’s the one who leads everybody down this dark road; it’s a massive role?
I like to think of it as an ensemble piece. The three people are all vital and as complex in character. The chemistry and trust had to be right between us. The subject matter is hard, you think “how can people carry on after they’ve been subjected to that abuse”. From an acting point of view it’s been a real challenge, one you can really get your teeth into so I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.
A high stakes battle of wills plays out in that small house; everybody has everything to gain or to lose, there’s no middle ground?
Gerardo’s a huge human rights advocate who’s fought long and hard for his legal career. Now he’s part of the new government, heading this investigative commission. He’s obviously worried if this private trial Paulina is orchestrating comes out or she kills Dr Miranda his career will be in ruins and possibly cause the downfall of the new regime. Everything they’ve been fighting for could crumble.
On top of that he’s madly in love with this woman, he’s stuck by her through thick and thin, helped her after she was tortured. Part of him wants to help his wife, to be free of her demons. On the other hand, he doesn’t want someone tried and executed in his house.
Paulina seems to have all the power, Dr Miranda is rightly frightened whether he’s innocent or guilty and then there’s Gerardo who’s devoted himself to justice but has to operate in the murky grey area between truths and lies to save everybody?
She hears Dr Miranda talking to her husband and it triggers this memory and she never waivers. She knows what she wants and how to talk to Gerardo to get it. She has power over the doctor now. Paulina’s the most violent character on stage, she’s tied up Dr Miranda; she’s the one wielding a gun. The doctor’s fighting for his life.
Gerardo’s torn between doing right by his beliefs and perhaps his belief in his wife; it’s a catch 22?
I think Gerardo has all the power, he’s the go-between. He loves this woman and has to get her through this. He knows the only way they’re both going to get out of this unscathed is if Dr Miranda is able to leave, but Paulina has to believe justice has been done in one shape or form. She needs to hear the doctor’s confession, that’s how she gets her peace. If you’re interested in psychology, the way society works this is the perfect play.
Shows naturally grow as a tour progresses, you’re about halfway through. You’ve made an interesting choice doing a pivotal point in the play?
The bond the three of us on stage have is tremendous. That chemistry and that ease with each other had to be right for a play like this. During the rehearsal period we built up a complete history of each character. There are certain things that work and some things you think “no, we have to change that slightly, it’s not quite how we want it”. I think the sign of a great director is to trust your actors’ instincts in the moment.
Near the end of the show, Paulina isn’t convinced by what the doctor’s told her. He’s on his knees in front of her and she points the gun at his head. During the early part of the tour he (Keith) instinctively grabbed the end of the gun while I’m pointing it at him. That changes the dynamic totally. If Paulina wasn’t sure about killing Dr Miranda before, “oh my God, he’s grabbed the gun what do I do?” He’s saying “do it, do it”. With that action, you see the people in the front row recoil. That was the actor’s choice and Sarah said “keep it in, I like the way that’s changed the power between them”.
Sarah Gain, the play’s director, has said one of the worries in taking on a play with a political nature more than 20 years old is whether it’s still relevant. Sadly, it is. Was that in your mind when you were looking for the next show to tour?
I love material that makes people think "if I was in that situation what would I do, how would I think?” I’d touched on Death and the Maiden at drama school… I’ve read a lot of plays, a lot of scripts and it’s just so beautifully written. The story grabbed me, the chemistry between the characters… It is harrowing but there are little snippets of humour, bits of banter between husband and wife, despite it being so dark. I look for work that I hope is going to capture people’s imaginations, that people will be talking about when they leave the theatre.
Striking that balance between artistic fulfilment and box office success isn’t easy?
Nowadays you have to absolutely have a genuine passion for regional theatre to stay in it, because it’s so tough commercially – we have that. People who’ve worked with us many times say Baroque feels like a family. There was pressure, with Death and the Maiden being an award-winning play, but I thought people still like to see thrillers and I love the play so let’s do it. It’s also on the International Baccalaureate curriculum for this year and next.
From a producing point of view it’s nice to do a range of different plays. We’re known for revitalising classics, new writing… We try to keep it interesting, to not get stuck in one genre and get as many people interested in regional theatre to keep coming.
We’re immensely proud to be based in Norwich, that’s such a big thing for me. We can’t wait to come back to The Garage where we’ve held production weeks, launched tours… Death and the Maiden works best in intimate spaces, it adds to the tension, that sense of claustrophobia – you’re trapped in that room with the three of us.
Photographs: Mark Turner