Is the truth always liberating?

(This article appeared in The EastAfrican 21-27 November 2011 under the title Phoenix Take On Death and the Maiden)

Mumbi Kaigwa as Paulina in Death and the Maiden Photo by Susan Wong
Mumbi Kaigwa as Paulina in Death and the Maiden Photo by Susan Wong

Think of a man whose health can never be restored and who from sheer despair makes matters worse instead of better. Think, I say, of a man whose brightest hopes have come to nothing, to whom love and friendship are but torture, and whose enthusiasm for the beautiful is fast vanishing and ask yourself if such a man is not truly unhappy.”

So wrote the Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1829) in a letter to a friend, as he suffered from the late stages of syphilis, around the time he wrote his famous string quartet, Death and the Maiden (1831).

However, instead of a man, think of a woman in the circumstances that Schubert depicts in his letter, and you will get a fitting description of Paulina, the protagonist in Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden (1991), which opened at Phoenix Theatre on Friday, November 4th, directed by Mumbi Kaigwa.

Pauline (Mumbi Kaigwa), a former medical student, still suffers from the trauma she experienced when she was tortured and raped years ago for being and activist protesting the totalitarian regime that ruled her country.

The country and the regime are unnamed but since Dorfman is Chiliean, it is often supposed that he writes about the country’s coup d’état of 1973 that resulted in the murder of President Salvador Allende and the coming of power of the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

Mumbi Kaigwa, Maqbul Mohammed and Gakunju Kaigwa in Death and the Maiden Picture by Susan Wong
Mumbi Kaigwa, Maqbul Mohammed and Gakunju Kaigwa in Death and the Maiden Picture by Susan Wong

The play opens on the evening that Paulina’s husband Gerald (Maqbul Mohammed), a lawyer, has been appointed the president of the newly restored democracy, to head the commission responsible for investigating crimes committed by the former regime, with a view to healing and reconciling.

Gerald finds himself fighting for justice on two fronts: at home and nationally and finds that the truth is not necessarily liberating. “We will die from an excessive dose of the truth” and reconciliation sometimes means further victimising the victim.

He has just been dropped at his house by a Dr Miranda (Gakunju Kaigwa) who has rescued him from the roadside where he was stranded with a flat tyre. The doctor, learning from the radio about Gerard’s appointment, comes back to congratulate him. However, Paulina recognises his voice as that of the doctor who conducted the rape and torture she endured in prison. Perhaps by coincidence, she also finds in his car a cassette that has Shubert’s Death and the Maiden, which is what the prison doctor played during the sessions of torture.

Paulina demands a confession from Dr Miranda, while Gerard, a firm believer in justice and fair trial defend him. It is not easy to tell if Paulina, as a result of her unstable mental health, (which is manifested in actions like stuffing her panties into Dr Miranda’s mouth to gag him) is merely being paranoid or if Miranda is really the doctor who tortured her.

Maqbul Mohammed and Mumbi Kaigwa in Death and the Maiden Pictures by Susan Wong
Maqbul Mohammed and Mumbi Kaigwa in Death and the Maiden Picture by Susan Wong

The most poignant aspect of the play is that it does not unravel this ambiguity but instead shows how the issues of healing and reconciliation are not as straight-forward as we may want to believe.

I was initially struck by Dr Miranda’s coming back in the middle of the night just to congratulate Gerard on his appointment to head the commission of reconciliation, saying, “you are what this country needs.” I was not born at the time when people died for Kenya’s liberation and I have since my childhood associated this sort of patriotism with South America because of characters like General Alcasar in the Tintin comics.

But, as the play progressed, the action came closer home for me as Paulina’s torment and anguish brought to mind the testaments of the women who lived through the Mau Mau war, recorded in Caroline Elkin’s Britain’s Gulag (2005). In fact, representatives of the TJRC who attended the opening night invited the audience to a small discussion after the play, in which some talked about their experience of torture under the country’s former regime.

Mumbi Kaigwa uses sound effects like the doctor’s voice and the strings of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, in her interpretation of the play to put us in the mind of Paulina, whose memories are preserved through sound. Paulina was blind-folded while being tortured. In the same way, the audience is drawn into the mood of the play by the sound of the waves from the nearby sea and other effects that describe offstage action.

The action unfolds slowly, without losing pace as the cast maintain their energy through to the end. The role of Gerard in this production was initially intended from Jimmy Gathu and I had looked forward to seeing him in the same cast as Mumbi Kaigwa, for we rarely see two such veterans play side by side.

© Anne Manyara 2011

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