Brighton Year-Round 2022
Just as the technology of the telephone offered the possibility of paid-for sex without the danger and inconvenience of on-street soliciting (it’s why prostitutes became known as ‘call girls’), so the development of the internet and the ‘gig’ economy has given us food – anything from pizza to three course gourmet dinners – delivered to our homes. Hungry? … just Google ‘Just Eat’.
But if it’s culture we want, maybe we should look for something like ‘Just Watch’.
We haven’t got to that stage yet (though perhaps someone should register the domain name) – but Triada Theatre Company are certainly showing us the way. The company present small-scale theatre productions in people’s own homes, to a limited audience of family and friends. As their programme notes put it – ‘Tackling big issues in small spaces we create intimate, immersive experiences that provoke thought and incite conversation; changing the world one living room at a time’.
‘Death And The Maiden’ certainly deals with big issues – Ariel Dorfman is Chilean-Argentinian, and his play is about the aftershocks following the seismic events of a military coup; when democracy of a limited sort has returned, but the memories of the previous regime’s brutality and torture still remain. As Dorfman puts it in the playscript’s afterword –
“How can those who tortured and those who were tortured co-exist in the same land? How to heal a country that has been traumatised by repression if the fear to speak out is still omnipresent everywhere? And how do you reach the truth if lying has become a habit? … And how guilty are we all of what happened to those who suffered most?”
Triada is a collective of three people: Angela El-Zeind, who directed this production, along with Fenia Gianni and Kevin Cherry, who acted in it. The play was staged in the living room of Gianni’s modern apartment on Hove seafront; a light, airy space with a balcony looking out to sea. Comfortable sofas and chairs, with glossy white kitchen surfaces and a large dining table. It felt like the (presumably Chilean, although the country is never specified) upmarket apartment owned by Gerardo Escobar, a successful lawyer and human rights activist.
Gerardo was played by the actor Matt Turpin, and his wife Paulina Salas by Fenia Gianni. Kevin Cherry played Dr Roberto Miranda, who’s the axis around which the whole play pivots.
Gerardo has just been appointed to a Commission charged with investigating the human rights violations of the previous regime, and he’s on his way home when his car has a puncture and he’s rescued by Dr Miranda, a stranger to him but a Good Samaritan, who drives him home and is persuaded to stay overnight. Once there, Gerardo’s wife Paulina recognises the voice of the man who had tortured her, fifteen years previously, and she resolves to take some kind of revenge. (Personally, I’ve always regarded this as an improbable deus ex machine plot device, but it gets us into the meat of the only-too-real moral dilemmas …)
Triada’s use of domestic settings is a brilliant concept, and in this production they made full use of the potential of the apartment. We saw it at night, and the windows onto the balcony served as a vantage point for Paulina to watch for the lights of approaching cars, while the corridor leading to the bedrooms and bathroom enabled characters to move to these locations without the complicated set building that would be required on a conventional stage. Lea Sep’s lighting helped enormously to evoke changes of mood and time. Just a few lamps splashing different coloured light off the room’s ceiling were all it took, but the effects were profound. At one point Paulina stands hidden in the dim light of the corridor, listening while her husband and Dr Miranda sit talking in the living room; but the audience could see all three, and be complicit in Paulina’s surveillance.
Although the play is all about Dr Miranda and his past actions, he’s really a peripheral character. The real centre of interest is between Paulina and Gerardo – between truth and lies, between the catharsis of revenge and the (supposedly) civilised moderation allowing forgiveness. Which may just be a way of avoiding the hard choices that moral justice demands.
Paulina is the one who’s been tortured, but she has a gun, and when she takes Dr Miranda prisoner and ties him up, her husband is horrified. Gerardo’s the one charged with investigating the previous regime’s horrific crimes, but he’s mostly concerned that things proceed with “exemplary signs of moderation and equanimity”. He understands that nobody will actually be punished as a result of the Commission’s findings, but he’s fearful that too much justice will lead to the return of the previous regime. He’s also concerned that he would have to give up his post on the Commission – obviously an important career step for him.
Gerardo is actually very self-centred – he’s initially lied to his wife about having already accepted his post on the Commission without asking her; and over the years he’s never been able to talk seriously to her about her experiences of torture. She had been raped as well, but her husband doesn’t want to think about that, and she has to push him to face the facts – “How many times did they rape me?”
And Gerardo is weak as well as self-centred: Paulina underwent her ordeal without ever implicating her husband, but on finally returning home she discovered that he’d been having sex with another woman while she’s been imprisoned. In a powerful reversal of dialogue she pushes him again – “How many times did you fuck her?”
Matt Turpin portrayed Gerardo as Mr. Moderation – don’t rock the boat too much and let’s get on with our lives. He’s terrified of something that will upset his ordered, successful existence. Fenia Gianni, by contrast, gave us a Paulina whose powerful emotions are not constrained by fear or shame. “You know that if the police do show their noses here I’ll put a bullet straight through this man’s head, you know that. don’t you? And then I’ll put the gun into my mouth and pull the trigger.” She probably doesn’t actually intend to kill Dr Miranda, but after what she’s suffered she wants there to be something, a confession, or for the torturer to feel some of the fear that she herself had experienced. Gianni’s performance – her vocal range and her body language – convinced me that I really was watching a woman who’d been to Hell, and back …
I said above that Dr Miranda is simply there to point out the different moralities of the couple; but that doesn’t mean that Kevin Cherry didn’t make the man real for us. If Gerardo was Mr. Moderation, then Miranda is Mr. Reasonable.
The man’s a torturer, an agent of a Fascist regime; but clever and slippery. At the start of the play, when he’s just realised that Gerardo is going to serve on the investigating Commission, Miranda’s very keen to ingratiate himself with the lawyer and become his friend and confidant. Obviously he’s hoping that he can get some influence, or inside knowledge, out of this chance encounter. Cherry varied his delivery: softly spoken at one point as he’s trying to win over his captors – “Roberto. My name is Roberto. Please treat me with the same familiarity as before”. Nice. But Cherry made the mask slip a fraction when he gave us Miranda’s authoritarian streak as he challenges Gerardo – ” Can’t you impose a little order in your own house?”.
A fine grasp of psychology from actor and director – the one time Cherry made his voice really angry was when Gerardo mentioned the Doctor’s mother – “Leave my mother out of this. I forbid you to mention my mother.” (so what kind of childhood did the Doctor have? …) A very believable portrayal of the mind of a monster. For monster Miranda certainly is; he claims to have slipped gradually into the role of torturer, but he confesses that by the end his thoughts were – “How much can this woman take?… She is entirely in your power, you can carry out all your fantasies, you can do what you want with her.”
Chilling. The horrific abuses of the Chilean and Argentinian military regimes took place half a century ago, but equivalent events are still happening in many countries today. Ariel Dorfman’s play makes us question our own position on what constitutes an appropriate moral response. (Spoiler – I wanted Paulina to shoot the bastard …)
A very feminist play, too. Of the three characters, the only one with any moral fibre is the woman, Paulina. She alone has the integrity that both the men are sadly lacking. I’m sure of that because I believed in them all as real people, there in front of me. In the programme notes, Triada say that by operating in people’s homes, their ‘personal space’, they can subvert the temporary suspension of disbelief that is needed in a theatre, provoking audiences ‘to react and respond to man’s inhumanity to man.’
See – I really did want Paulina to shoot the bastard . . .