Sunday, 13 November 2011

Death and the Maiden - Harold Pinter Theatre (formerly The Comedy Theatre), Friday 11th November 2011


Years have passed since political prisoner Paulina suffered at the hands of her captor: A man whose face she never saw, but whose voice she can still recall with terrifying clarity.

Tonight, by chance, a stranger arrives at the secluded beach house she shares with her husband Gerardo, a human rights lawyer. a stranger Paulina is convinced was her tormentor and must now be held to account…
Paulina: Thandie Newton
Gerardo – Tom Goodman-Hill
Roberto – Anthony Calf

Creative Team:
Written by Areil Dorfman
Director – Jeremy Herrin
Set and Costume design – Peter McIntosh
Lighting – Neil Austin
Sound – Fergus O’Hare

Its not often that I am sitting at my PC when an offer of cheap tickets drops into my inbox. Sure, it wasn’t for anything that I was desperate to see, but there was a certain “why not?” feeling about my decision – it was either that or sit and stare at the TV all Friday night until my eyes started to bleed. And Him Indoors sounded vaguely amenable to coming. So we went. And rapidly realized that we probably should have stayed at home.

There was a moment of high comedy as we went to the theatre to collect the tickets before heading off for an extortionately priced cup of coffee round the corner. I’d literally put my foot on the first of the steps leading up to the entrance when I was accosted by a slightly over-enthusiastic chap with one of those little earpieces sticking out of his lug. “Are you here to collect your tickets?” I paused for a second or two, wondering why on earth I would be entering a theatre an hour before curtain up otherwise. Perhaps he thought I was a terrorist? “Er….. yes”, I replied. “You’ll be able to get them from the Box Office”, he said, “which is over there”. He pointed to the small window about 8 foot away from me across the nastily patterned carpet. The window had the words “Box Office” painted over it in big gold letters. Perhaps he thought I was a stupid terrorist? “I think I could have worked both those things out for myself, thanks”, I replied, rolling my eyes mentally, “I have done this kind of thing before”, desperately wanting to say “Oh thanks! I had intended to wander about aimlessly in your very small foyer for 20 minutes trying desperately to work out where to collect my ticket” instead. Possibly there have been an influx of people going to the theatre recently (probably to see Ghost or Rock of Ages) who don’t realize that one collects one’s tickets from the box office, people who can’t read or work out the directions to the Box Office even though its quite literally in spitting distance, has “Box Office” painted up over it and is in plain view from the door. Or possibly the guy with the little earpiece worked for the Department of The Bleeding Obvious? Is theatre dumbing down that much? Honestly.

Anyway, it rapidly became clear that the success of the entire play rests very firmly on the shoulders of whoever is playing Paulina. And that when she is being played by someone who has never set foot on the stage before, it isn’t going to work. Sure, the woman may be an experienced film actress but honeychile, they is two completely different things, an’ jus’ cos you is good at the one, doan mean that you is goin’ to be any good at the other. Sure, the role of Paulina is a difficult one; you need not only vulnerability but a core of hardened steel that makes the audience agonise over what you are doing and why. You need to be a frightened woman capable of suddenly turning the tables on both the man you think repeatedly raped you 15 years ago and the entire audience. Juliet Stephenson created the role in London and I bet the atmosphere in the theatre back then was electric. It wasn’t last night. You need an actress with balls of steel and a hell of a lot of stage expertise. This, however, was a horribly, embarrassingly misguided choice of role for someone making their stage debut, someone who should have listened to that irritating voice inside the head that we all have; the one that, however much we try to convince ourselves otherwise, is always bloody right. If Newton had pulled this one off, it would have made her a star overnight. But my advice to her would now be “Stick to films love”.

Ironically, this then throws a more intense light on the two male actors who then have to carry the play. Ordinarily, you would hardly notice their performances because you would be so wrapped up in the action. But here, it becomes rapidly obvious that they are both bloody good actors who have learned their trade well. Tom Goodman-Hill comes out of this particularly well – his character is one of those irritating “Shall I, shan’t I? type of men that would usually just come across as vacillating and a bit wet. Against Newton, you can see that he is actually doing a very good job with a very poorly written part.

Stupidly, the producers seem to have incorporated an interval in the play. Not only is there no natural place for this (reflected in the fact that, during the first part of the run – and very possibly other productions - it was a straight-through, one act, 100 minute play), but the interval means that any tension built up during the first half drains away from the auditorium completely and then struggles – and fails – to build up again in the second. So the second half is an almost complete flop. Lets face it, with the current fashion for no-interval plays, 100 minutes is nothing much anyway – I’ve sat there for 2 ½ hours without an interval in the past. With a decent actress the play would fly by, becoming almost unbearably tense; I have a sneaky suspicion that the lack of interval was having an effect on bar takings at the theatre. The piece would run much better without a break. As it is, most people seem to use the extra time to discuss the shortcomings of both the piece and the leading lady. Or perhaps they are struggling with Ordnance Survey maps and Kendal Mint Cake in the foyer trying to find their way back to the Box Office.

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