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Theatre: The timeless appeal of Death and the Maiden

Why is this 35-year-old psychological thriller by Ariel Dorfman relevant even today?

brunch Updated: Mar 16, 2019 23:07 IST
Lubna Salim
Lubna Salim
Hindustan Times
Death and the Maiden,psychological thriller,Ariel Dorfman
Rehearsals of Death and the Maiden are on in full swing

What happens when a play written over 35 years ago is staged in contemporary times? How does it manage to remain relevant and appeal to modern audiences? These are a few questions I wanted to ask Vidushi Mehra, who is making her directorial debut with the play Death and the Maiden, written by Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean playwright, in 1990.

The play was first staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1991 and was made into a film of the same name in 1994. Right now, says Vidushi, “There are four more productions of Death and the Maiden being presented roughly around the same time as ours in various parts of the world.”

Universal appeal

Death and the maiden is an hour-and-a-half-long play that revolves around three characters, Gerardo, Dr Miranda and Paulina

“The writing is relevant for a country that’s been under a dictatorship and subsequently become a democracy,” says Vidushi. “We’ve had leaders representing both the dynamics of a democracy as well as dictatorship,” she adds, “And as citizens of countries having witnessed both, we understand the perils of dictatorship. It has a direct influence on its people”.

“Similarly, the essential themes of the play - rape, politics, power, supremacy of one gender over the other, manipulation, trial and justice - find relevance in our society at any given time and are universal in that sense.”

So the play is continually reprised by different nationalities for several reasons. For one, a theme like the power dynamics between Gerardo (husband) and Paulina (wife) is something any couple can relate to. “Paulina is seeking justice through her husband who is in a position of complete power, but he chooses a democratic way of justice instead,” says Vidushi, who plays the protagonist Paulina Salas, a woman who was raped and tortured and is now demanding a confession from a man she suspects is the rapist. “We will essay the play as it was originally written by Dorfman. We didn’t feel the need to adapt it, as the themes are universal.”

Rehearsals are on in full swing. Death and the Maiden is due to be staged between April 2 and 10 at the quirky Shed9 in Dhanmill compound. The hour-and-a-half-long play revolves around three characters, Gerardo, Dr Miranda, and Paulina. Each character brings out the flaws and drama in the other two, and tells an incredibly powerful tale of inner trappings and insecurities.

Reality check

The open-ended Death and the Maiden has cost a lot to produce

As a director, Vidushi believes that imagination is key, as is the ability to allow for actors to understand the text freely. “At the end of the day we are three actors in the space, and we collaborate to remain true to the text using our individual efficiencies and skills,” she says. “I recognise the skills of my actors, their strengths and weaknesses, to engage a more natural rhythm of pace and timing which is crucial to this play. Lighting and set are hugely integral as it gives the audience a sense of time and space in which they see the story unfolding; the shadows created by lighting help accentuate the inner trappings of each character.”

Every production comes with challenges. The open-ended Death and the Maiden has cost a lot to produce. “We have for the first time been able to raise funds through a crowd sourcing platform, and several women have come out to support the medium of theatre and its cause. We have aligned ourselves with an NGO called Azad Foundation, and a percentage of our ticket sales will go to their endeavours,” says Vidushi. “We aren’t here to give anyone a sermon, but to tell a story. An intelligent audience will make of it as they will.”

The play has an extremely difficult text, entailing several layers, which makes it challenging for the three actors. “The challenge for each of us is to find the most compelling features of our characters, and find something new and fresh each day to keep the story alive,” says Vidushi.

Learning curve

Vidushi is a full-time actor and she is not only making her directorial debut with Death and the Maiden but producing it too

Vidushi is a full-time actor, and she is not only making her directorial debut with this play, but is producing it too. “I’ve been acting since I was six years old and knew I wanted to take this up as a profession when at 15, I performed my first lead role. There’s nothing more fulfilling or powerful than connecting live with an audience,” she says.

A known face on the Delhi social circuit, she is married to celebrated designer Nikhil Mehra of the Shantanu & Nikhil label, and is a musician and an entrepreneur as well as an actress. Her plays have attracted acclaim and appreciation nationally and globally, and have run to packed houses in Slovenia, Austria and Italy, apart from major cities in India. Her productions Skylight, and Molly Sweeny have been well-received, and she made her screen debut in Aisha (2010), which was followed by No One Killed Jessica (2011) and Saat Khoon Maaf (2012) among other films. You have also seen her in many, many TV commercials.

First, however, Vidushi was a banker, and spent over a decade in the corporate banking sector. This experience has helped her as a producer, since she is not afraid of money. While she wants to execute a vision as a director, as a producer she has to ensure her choices are commercially viable.

“Sometimes the trade off isn’t what you expect. But there has been tremendous learning through this journey; some mistakes some victories. Only time will tell what will happen,” she says.

From HT Brunch, March 17, 2019

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First Published: Mar 16, 2019 20:48 IST