The incompatible claims of justice and revenge are haunting the countries liberated by the Arab Spring. Those issues are at the heart of Ariel Dorfman’s 1991 play “Death and the Maiden,” now starring Thandie Newton in London.
Paulina (Newton) has lived a broken life ever since she was blindfolded and tortured as a young woman during the years of a former fascist regime.
A guest of her husband arrives unexpectedly at their house one night. She believes the guest (Anthony Calf) is her former abuser, grabs a gun, and convinces her lawyer husband of the need to extract a confession.
The brutal irony is that Paulina ends up using similar methods to the ones that were used on her.
Newton, a beautiful English actress best known for the films “Beloved” and “Crash,” works hard to present a woman living a damaged life. She twitches uncomfortably when touched. She’s prickly. She blazes with fury when she brandishes her gun.
It’s not quite enough. The more vulnerable and sympathetic side of the character escapes her, and it leaves the Harold Pinter Theatre production feeling chilly. Jeremy Herrin’s plodding staging, set around a kitchen table, doesn’t improve matters.
It’s partly the fault of the play too. While there’s a strong central conflict, the only ambiguity lies in the is-he-isn’t-he question of the guest’s guilt. The rest of the writing is clunkily expositional and schematic. Paulina is “revenge” and her husband (Tom Goodman-Hill) “justice,” and their characters rarely break mould.
Even the play’s title hints at this reductive weakness. It refers to the name of Schubert’s 14th string quartet, which had been played during Paulina’s torture sessions. Schubert had been her favorite composer. “Schubert” is thereafter invoked as a symbol of beauty destroyed, civilization abused.
“I couldn’t listen to Schubert again,” she says.
What? There’s plenty of second-rate Schubert she could have sat through without even noticing. The unstageable operas, maybe? Some of the dull early quartets? The boringly repetitious youthful symphonies? Schubert’s music is too varied to be reduced to a symbol. So are concepts of vengeance and truth. They suffer when squeezed into manageable-sized boxes. Rating: **.
‘Castor and Pollux’
While we’re on the subject of boxes and suffering, there’s a new staging of the baroque French work “Castor and Pollux” at English National Opera.
Rameau’s 1754 work tells the story of two noble brothers prepared to sacrifice themselves for each other, even to the point of taking the other’s place in the underworld.
Director Barrie Kosky places his modern-dress staging in a bare square space made entirely of light-colored beechwood (sets by Katrin Lea Tag). There are no doors or windows. It’s all very claustrophobic.
This is the space in which Kosky presents a tableau of psychosexual dysfunction. Pollux, when given a vision of heaven, sees giggling schoolgirls taking their panties down for him.
When Castor drags up as a grotesque parody of his love-interest Telaire, Pollux lusts after him. Telaire’s rival Phebe sings of darkness and hell while a disembodied hand violently rubs her crotch.
Women are grotesque and hell-ridden, while men are energetically lusty. Misogyny, anyone?
Characters telegraph their emotions with the subtlety of six-year-olds. Anger means screwing one’s face up. Despair means flinging oneself against a wall. Anguish means dropping with a thud onto one’s knees.
Let’s hope there’s an osteopath on hand.
The singers throw themselves -- literally -- into the concept with energy, with little result.
Allan Clayton displays a gorgeously shining high tenor sound as Castor, and Sophie Bevan makes a warm, clear-voiced Telaire. Roderick Williams is a vocally pleasing Pollux too, and early music specialist Christian Curnyn conducts with spirit.
It doesn’t help. The staging is a co-production with the Komische Oper Berlin, where Kosky is due to take up the position of Intendant next year. Lucky Berlin. Rating: *.
“Death and the Maiden” is at the Harold Pinter Theatre (formerly the Comedy Theatre). Information: http://www.deathandthemaidentheplay.com or +44-844-871-7622
“Castor and Pollux” is in repertoire at English National Opera through Dec. 1. Information: http://www.eno.org or +44-871-911-0200.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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