During the 1990s, Death and the Maiden by the Chilean author, Ariel Dorfman, took Euro-American audiences by storm, powered by successful productions on Broadway and the West End, and by Roman Polanski’s cinematization. Not surprisingly, we followed suit: Alyque Padamsee climbing on the bandwagon in 1993, Sara Zaker directing the Bangladeshi premiere in 1994 (both, admittedly, before Polanski) and Calcutta’s own Proscenium staging it in English in 1997.
Somehow, none of these versions fully satisfied me. The play, about atrocities and torture under General Pinochet’s fascist regime, seemed flawed in minor but several ways. Although it dealt with the very serious issue of sexual assault in custody, it fell back too uncomfortably on the conventions of the whodunnit and revenge thriller. Often, small details in its development did not look or sound credible enough. Sometimes one also wondered — perhaps unfairly — whether Dorfman’s male approach modulated the speech and motives of his heroine.
Kalyani Natyacharcha Kendra’s Meyeti (picture), powerful but not perfect, raises other questions too. Firstly, the translator, Kaberi Basu, provides a rather prosaic title, completely erasing Death as well as the evocative allusion to Schubert’s famous lied. And, as in all the interpretations I have seen so far, director Kishore Sengupta deletes the challenging last scene, in which wife, husband and rapist encounter each other again at a concert, suggesting to us that nothing has changed. Why is it so difficult for our directors to think out of the theatrical box when anything extraordinary occurs?
The acting fluctuates between excellent and banal. This affects the full impact more than normally because there are only three characters. The wife (Bindia Ghosh in her first major role) impresses the most, not holding back her fiery emotions in any fashion, making a memorable contribution to the lineage of her pedigreed predecessors — Glenn Close, Juliet Stevenson and Sigourney Weaver (in the film).
However, the men require careful reconsideration. Sengupta, as her husband, must decide where his head lies: if he truly loves her, he must trust what she says and act upon it; but if he thinks she has gone hysteric, it demands a more equivocal performance.
Meanwhile, Goutam Halder almost kills the show with his near-caricature of the rapist. One simply cannot believe that such a hardened offender can behave so ludicrously or can crack under pressure so easily after holding out for so long. By the end, his recurrent echoes of “Oh Gad” have become laughable instead of a cry of torment. If he applies psychology to his portrayal, Meyeti can still pack a punch.