Review: Death and the Maiden (Ad Astra)

Sandra Harman as Paulina Salas and Tom Coyle as Dr Roberto Miranda. Photographed by Christopher Sharman.

Content warning: This production contains coarse language, adult themes, and sexual references, including descriptions of sexual violence and torture.

This production also contains strobe lighting.

Ad Astra present the heart-pounding psychological thriller Death and the Maiden to close their 2021 season, directed by Jacqueline Kerr.

Written by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman in 1990, Death and the Maiden takes place in a country transitioning from dictatorship to democracy. Paulina Salas (played in this production by Sandra Harman) was a political prisoner fifteen years ago, tortured and raped under the previous regime. Now her lawyer husband, Gerardo Escobar (Gary Farmer-Trickett) has been appointed to a presidential commission to investigate the crimes committed under the regime. However, when Gerardo arrives home with Dr Roberto Miranda (Tom Coyle), Paulina believes that she recognises Miranda as her torturer and puts him on trial herself. With her husband acting as his lawyer, she extracts a confession at gunpoint. But is this the confession of a guilty man, or the confession of an innocent man desperate to save his own life?

Sandra Harman as Paulina Salas and Tom Coyle as Dr Roberto Miranda. Photographed by Christopher Sharman.

The play’s title is taken from a string quartet composed by Franz Schubert, which Paulina’s torturer played repeatedly during her ordeal. The piece of music recurred hauntingly throughout the work, the dramatic strings of the quartet becoming increasingly ingrained in the horrors that Paulina described.

The play examined themes of justice and forgiveness, and paralleled Paulina’s traumatic experiences with the recovery of her home country from the fascist government under which such human rights abuses had been committed. Similarly, domestic disagreements and accusations of infidelity were juxtaposed against the larger horrors of dictators and disappearances. It may be a lack of historical and political knowledge on my part, but I was left with the question of why, and how, Paulina had been set free following her kidnapping and torture. Death and the Maiden also explores trauma and memory, and touches on the trope of the ‘mad’ woman, although Gerardo is at least as unbalanced as Paulina in his approach to the vigilante justice being conducted in their house.

Sandra Harman as Paulina Salas and Gary Farmer-Trickett as Gerardo Escobar. Photographed by Christopher Sharman.

In addition to directing the production, Jacqueline Kerr also designed the set, lighting, and sound for Death and the Maiden. The setting of Paulina and Gerardo’s beach house was impressive, creating separate spaces for the action and emphasising the duality of the characters and the stories they were telling each other. The set and lighting design also shifted the audience focus within the scenes, and sound design added to the action and emotion of the performance. A number of scenes began in low light, which was effective, and there were moments of dark humour that briefly alleviated the heaviness of the play’s themes and action. The final scene of the play was especially memorable, in both the staging and the shift in energy from the previous scenes.

The black box theatre space of Ad Astra amplified the adrenaline and emotion of the play, and allowed the audience to appreciate the nuance of the actors’ work through both the deliberate staging and sheer proximity. In a small, intimate theatre space like this it is the little details that stand out – darting eyes, a shaking hand – and this is one of the awe-inspiring experiences that I love about live theatre.

Tom Coyle as Dr Roberto Miranda and Sandra Harman as Paulina Salas. Photographed by Christopher Sharman.

The cast of three delivered a vigorous and committed performance, sustaining and elevating the emotional power of the play. Sandra Harman delivered a passionate performance as Paulina, Gary Farmer-Trickett vacillated between calm concern and outright fury as Gerardo, and Tom Coyle displayed impressive versatility as the audience struggled to decipher whether he was a victim or a torturer. All of the actors presented two sides to their characters – Paulina as acerbic but manic, Gerardo as level-headed but emotional, and Roberto as both terrified and terrifying. The trust between the actors, especially Harman and Coyle, was evident as they navigated difficult scenes and dark subject matter together.

Ad Astra’s Death and the Maiden was intense and intimate, performed with skill and commitment and keeping us on the edges of our seats from start to finish.

Death and the Maiden will play at Ad Astra Theatre in Fortitude Valley until December 4.

For ticketing and further information, visit the Ad Astra website

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