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Brighton Year-Round 2022

Low Down

Originally directed  by Angela El-Zeind of  Triada Theatre,  and now co-directed by all of that collective; the scene is the upstairs pub in front of the audience with lighting and props from the premises. Traida supply the food.

Till July 3rd


Chilean-Argentinian Ariel Dorfman burst on to the Royal Court with the unusual world premiere of Death and the Maiden. Unusual because though it had a workshop production in its original Spanish, its earlier first reading then premiere created defining performances from Juliet Stevenson, Bill Patterson, Michael Byrne. What Triada Theatre does is twist a modern classic somewhere else.

‘An inquest into the darker side of humanity’, Dorfman sets his play precisely in the then now. It’s 1990, and fifteen years ago April 6th 1975 a woman was abducted like many others, raped, tortured to Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet, but never revealed names. Chile fell to a coup in 1973, Argentina in 1976. The play notes precisely seventeen years of dictatorship just over in 1990. Chile again. But the country could be anywhere. Though Ukraine’s invasion erupted since this production’s first run, underscoring a terrible relevance, it shouldn’t blind us to the far right’s rise: fingering the US and UK, as much as Brazil, Hungary, Turkey.

After a military dictatorship’s been overthrown, its victims are seeking an early version of truth and reconciliation: perpetrators won’t be named but their crimes will, victims vindicated. There’s already pushback. One rising lawyer whose wife is a victim makes the mistake of being given a lift home by someone who his wife is convinced was her lead torturer. She has a gun. But this play doesn’t play by gun rules any more than she does.

What renders this production disturbing, groundbreaking is portable property. Triada Theatre don’t so much break a fourth wall as pick it up, port it and enter your home with it intact. Triada feel immersion’s a different country, they do things differently there. And as its name suggests, they’re a trio: Director  Angela El-Zeind, with two of the three actors: Fenia Gianni and till recently Kevin Cherry.

Gianni takes Paulina Salas, and replacing Kevin Cherry John Newcombe in the catalytic role of Dr Roberto Miranda. Matt Turpin plays Paulina’s husband Gerardo Escobar.

The programme isn’t currently available (becoming an own goal in Fringe, deeply frustrating), and I’m grateful to access my colleague Strat Mastoris’ quotations from the February run and later corrections. Triada claim that operating in people’s homes (here it’s a pub theatre), their ‘personal space’, they subvert the temporary suspension of disbelief needed in a theatre, provoking audiences ‘to react and respond to man’s inhumanity to man.’

Originally directed by Angela El-Zeind it’s now co-directed by Triada. The scene is the actual upstairs pub in front of the audience; with lighting and props from the premises, Triada supplying the food. The venue hasn’t all the unusual advantages of the previous space, allowing all characters to be observed even offstage. It does just here conform more to regular staging. And it looks ideally like a home.

We start blandly enough. Newcombe’s Dr Miranda has pulled over and given the hapless flat-tyre Gerardo a lift home. His wife had lent the car-jack to her mother. Gerardo displays disingenuousness, pretending he’s not already taken a post the president offers before consulting Paulina. But as she walks off Miranda returns.

Miranda’s ingratiating with Gerardo, the new star lawyer setting up the new commission to elicit truth. He thinks the guilty will deny anything but names will come out. Gerardo persuades Miranda to stay the night, but Paulina hears the voice and enters at night with a gun. Miranda, she asserts, was her lead torturer and rapist.

Miranda ever mild, appeals to the appalled Gerardo to make his wife desist. Paulina, in a blazing performance from Gianni wants a confession. Miranda’s mask slips when this doesn’t happen: ‘Can’t you impose a little order in your own house?’ It’s enough to turn Gerardo’s suspicions, to at least consider his wife: and yes humour her if concocting a recorded and written confession where he can add convincing details will get Miranda off and free Paulina from the past. But… Paulina knows her husband and has prepared a few traps.

Turpin’s Gerardo is consummately out of his depth, morally and experientially. Turpin ably conveys Gerardo’s essential blandness, indeed moral blankness. He’s never confronted his wife’s pain; yet has been forgiven. We discover strange parallels: Paulina has never revealed how many times she was raped, but demands how many times Gerardo ‘fucked that bitch’ the woman she discovers naked on returning home and not betraying Gerardo. Gianni’s probing too leaves us in no doubt as to the identity of Miranda, blindfolded as she was: the smell of him, skin even. It’s a curiously intimate piece, but this isn’t Stockholm syndrome.

What Paulina needs too is her Schubert back: a favourite composer she can enjoy again, closely linked with a return of the sexual intimacy she also craves. It’s a deft metaphor Dorfman frames: no chance of falling for your jailer here.

Miranda’s apologia starts as a man asked to gauge the level of pain a woman could take and he begins ‘good’, claiming they’d die, thus saves lives. Gradually Miranda confesses to complicit excitement. ‘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.’

Gradually too Miranda slips key pet words like ‘Nietzsche’, only in Gerardo’s hearing. So when Paulina references it when they’re alone, Gerardo gets it. As with ‘teeny-weeny’: Dorfman doesn’t want Miranda’s identity in doubt. Ambiguity lies elsewhere.

Newcombe’s mild demeanour virtually never slips; even Miranda’s harangues seem eruptive from long suppression; he has no ready access to his own rage. Which makes him deadly. Newcombe conveys not so much the steel of a man seduced by power, but as Hannah Arendt terms it the banality of his evil. If Miranda’s the catalyst though, it’s Paulina and Gerardo whose key scenes confront the moral strength of the one over the other. Not to mention cleverness.

The force of this play owes something to the intimate torture of Ionesco’s 1951 The Lesson (currently playing at Southwark) and C P Taylor’s 1981 Good, with the slow collapse of another cultured doctor into Nazidom and death camps, with music again as metaphor. The difference is there’s a refraction from direct (The Lesson) to narrative reporting and dissonance (Good) to the operation of memory in this drama, with no flashbacks. We end the play’s second act on a cliffhanger.

There is though a flash-forward, here departing from the original with a TV interview instead of a concert scene. It’s in the finale’s spirit though some subtlety and ambiguity is lost. What it does is underscore how the compromise both husband and wife admit as essential works publicly; but how other forces, other decisions might have their say offstage.

Gianni owns Paulina’s fierceness: her register inevitably contrasts with the British mildness of both Turpin and Newcombe (who’s taking up the role at short notice), underscoring their characters’ human paucity in the blaze of one woman’s headlong pursuit of justice and expiation. This can happen inches from you, even where you live. Groundbreaking. Do see this.