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Review Round-up: Dorfman's Maiden Inaugurates Pinter

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Thandie Newton has made her professional stage debut at the newly named Harold Pinter Theatre in Jeremy Herrin's revival of Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden, which opened last night (24 October 2011, previews from 13 October).

Newton, best known for starring in films including The Pursuit of Happiness, Mission: Impossible II and Crash, appears alongside Tom Goodman-Hill and Anthony Calf in the three-hander, which is set in Chile shortly after the fall of the Pinochet regime.

How did the critics feel about this new chapter in her thus far glittering career?

Michael Coveney

"Thandie Newton, making a West End debut at the Harold Pinter formerly known as the Comedy Theatre, has big boots to fill in Death and the Maiden, following Juliet Stevenson in the role of Paulina Salas … So how does she do? She works hard and gets through it. But her voice is severely limited in range and colour and her emotional register underwhelming. Whereas Stevenson tore you apart, Newton presents a doll-like figure, wielding a handgun as big as her head, barking out her rage and sense of injustice with the pettiness of someone who’s been short-changed at a supermarket check-out … Herrin gives her two fine actors in support: Tom Goodman-Hill as her husband, Gerardo Escobar, weaves sinuously in and out of the fast-changing situation; and Anthony Calf as the doctor, Roberto Miranda, plays a deft hand at self-defence in the most unflattering pair of boxer shorts I’ve seen on a West End stage."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"In a West End largely awash with dross and facile gloss, it is good to find that there is at least some drama of substance on offer … The play still seems topical, for torture certainly hasn’t gone away since the piece was first performed, with the supposedly civilised West now tainted by some of its actions in the ‘war on terror’. As one watches the play, one also wonders how Libya will deal with those who collaborated with the Gaddafi regime … Unfortunately the Hollywood actress Thandie Newton almost entirely misses the flayed intensity, horror and exhilaration that Juliet Stevenson brought to central character 20 years ago. Indeed this strikes me as a classic case of the dangers of star casting … There are decent performances from Tom Goodman-Hill as her anxious husband and Anthony Calf as the now tormented torturer who once played Schubert to his terrified victims. But director Jeremy Herrin cannot disguise the fatal weak link at the heart of his production."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"Newton is feline and coolly glamorous. However, she is much sleeker than the role demands, and vocally she has limitations. Her delivery doesn't have enough variety to convey Paulina's range of emotions as she exacts violent revenge for past abuses ... Newton shows us Paulina's spiralling anger, yet the character doesn't seem as intriguingly damaged as she needs to, and neither her pain nor her profanity resonates … The play itself packs a punch. Dorfman asks us to ponder the effects of persecution and the nature of legal process. There's a satisfying ambiguity … Anthony Calf evokes Miranda's discomfort and his insistence that he has no memory of Paulina - but doesn't appear sufficiently sinister. Tom Goodman-Hill's Gerardo is a man of impeccable legal credentials who isn't so sure of himself when it comes to his wife's anguish. Yet Jeremy Herrin's production lacks real bite. The overall impression is of playing things safe: it's competent rather than gripping."

Michael Billington

"It is highly appropriate that Ariel Dorfman's 1990 moral thriller is the first play to be presented in this newly-named theatre. Not only is Harold Pinter one of the play's dedicatees: the work also raises fundamental questions about the nature of justice that were close to his heart. But, while it makes a taut evening and the issues are as relevant as ever, Dorfman's chosen form now looks a little too neat ... Dorfman has the dramatist's ability to constantly shift the balance of sympathy. First, we side with the husband who believes it's the job of an investigating committee, of which he is part, to examine the sins of the past. But we come to understand Paulina's need to exorcise her private traumas. At moments we even join with Roberto, who repeatedly protests his innocence … It is a thoroughly well-acted evening, even if nothing can quite recapture the shock of first seeing this play in the claustrophobic Theatre Upstairs and even if Ariel Dorfman's play now seems almost too ingeniously wrought for so complex a subject.”

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"You have to admire the artistic courage of film star Thandie Newton. But is it enough? … It is hard to think of many parts more testing for an actress. Paulina, initially cowed, resorts to violence as she confronts the man in a remote coastal villa … This is a Mount Everest of a role. It demands fear, vengefulness, even vindictiveness. Paulina is impetuous, tempestuous. All this must be communicated across the gulf between the stage and auditorium of the newly named Pinter Theatre (formerly the Comedy). It’s a pig of a part to choose for your West End debut. The good news is that Miss Newton is not a complete disaster. She just about survives the ride. I am not sure I can put it more strongly than that. The voice lacks variety. The face is inexplicably placid. There is little violence in her movement. Urgency is weirdly absent. Director Jeremy Herrin strips the production of any South American flavour … The characters speak with English accents, although Tom Goodman-Hill’s limp Gerardo has a vaguely Californian uplift. The doctor is played solidly by Anthony Calf.”

Julie Carpenter
Daily Express

"Dorfman was inspired to write the play after returning to Chile following General Pinochet's rule and being struck by how those who were persecuted under the old regime were now living side by side with their former tormentors - some grappling with the traumas of what was done to them, others wondering if their crimes would now be exposed … It’s an emotionally-wrought and demanding role and in truth, Newton’s performance is a little patchy. As Paulina proceeds to put Roberto on trial in her beach home at gunpoint, Newton invests her with a detached sarcastic coolness but is perhaps a little too cool and is more effective in the moments she allows her pain to pierce through … This is a production which manages to manipulate our sympathies and if it doesn't quite pulsate with the terrifying emotional intensity that I remember from the original, the play is a fitting opener for the newly-renamed Harold Pinter Theatre - powerful, unsettling, ambiguous and refusing to give any neat answers. Pinter, to whom the play was originally dedicated, would surely have approved.”


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