A native of Chile, Ariel Dorfman was exiled in the 1970s following a coup that overthrew the government. He wrote Death and the Maiden after the fall of Pinochet's regime in 1990 but insists that although the play alludes to events similar to those in Chile the action that unfolds is set now, in an unspecified place. He wants to make these events possible anywhere and unsettle the audience in the process.
15 years ago Paulina - then a medical student with a sideline in helping people in danger flee the country - was kidnapped and systematically raped and tortured. Not surprisingly the events have left her scarred and she has lived in a state of perpetual fear ever since. But now, with a democratic government in power and under the protection of her understanding husband Gerard she is safe. Until one night when his car breaks down and a kind motorist gives him a lift home; Paulina is convinced she knows this stranger, Dr Miranda, and he is no good Samaritan.
Dorfman's play toys with the audience. As it starts we witness the couple arguing in their living room and are fooled into thinking this a domestic drama, but it's in this setting that Dorfman plays out a very political piece of theatre which keeps us guessing throughout.
It's about power and sex, mind games and how we assert our will over others. Paulina is continually controlled by men, even the gentle Gerard, but now she is taking the law into her own hands but is she right? Or have the traumas she suffered finally pushed her over the edge?
Norman Coates' design has the right sense of homely and relaxed and, in the intimate King's Head space, director Paul Alexander ought to have no trouble manipulating the audience. Alas the tension is never pulled taut enough and the dangerous, almost sexual, atmosphere necessary is largely absent. So is the sense of constant mind games - a massive battle of will is taking place here and the struggle should be tangible.
This is not the fault of Angelica Torn who gives a very convincing and psychologically accurate portrayal of Paulina. Rupert Wickham as Gerard is rather too nice though and you never feel he plunges to the same depths as Torn, so is left behind. Leigh Lawson fares no better as Dr Miranda - next to Torn his reactions seem rather overdone and simplistic.
In truth the production is ultimately disappointing because what should be an intense psychological battle, where the balance of power constantly switches and which the audience never knows who will win, rather seems like a foregone conclusion.