Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden opened last night on London’s West End (equivalent of NYC’s Broadway) Harold Pinter Theatre, with Thandie Newton starring in the play’s revival; and while most critics gave good enough marks to the overall production (3 out of 5 stars is about the average rating), they weren’t as kind to the actress’ performance, which is unfortunate.

My introduction to the play came in the form of the Roman Polanski film which starred Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley. A superb drama/thriller I thought, thanks to strong performances from the cast, Polanski’s direction, lush cinematography, all complimented by the haunting Schubert soundtrack.

Thandie Newton plays the role Sigourney Weaver played in the film.

And what are the Brit critics saying about her performance after the play’s revival opening last night?

From the Telegraph:

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. Miss Newton simply doesn’t have the theatrical chops for so demanding a role and her tight, strained voice, improbably immaculate hair-do and inability to really let rip and lay herself bare emotionally severely diminishes the play’s impact. 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.

Um… ouch?!? Certainly not what the show’s lead actress thought she’d wake up to this morning.

And it doesn’t get any better; from The Arts Desk:

This time, all eyes are on Thandie Newton – who was big in Crash, Run, Fatboy, Run and Mission Impossible 2 – and here makes her West End debut. Certainly, the casting of a mixed-race actor in a contemporary classic is an excellent idea, and has gained some added relevance from the recent BBC documentaries about the subject. But is she right for the part? The short answer is no. Newton’s voice is chirpy and cheery, and her performance lacks the pain of experience and the depth of, well, character. Her sobs are as superficial as shrugs; her passion is as bloodless as thin broth. When she talks dirty, it sounds like a schoolgirl taking a dare. There’s really no weight at all behind this acting.

Damn! And from London’s Evening Standard:

This revival also marks the West End debut of Thandie Newton. She plays the vengeful Paulina Salas, who believes that the man her lawyer husband Gerardo has brought into her home is her former torturer. It’s a performance of elegance but insufficient weight. 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.

Not as rough as the first 2, but still pretty much saying the same thing: in short, she’s all-too wrong for the part.

Anyone care to challenge? Enter the Guardian with this:

Jeremy Herrin’s production nevertheless generates considerable tension and marks the West End debut of film star Thandie Newton as Paulina. Even if her voice could do with more modulations of tone, she performs with great assurance, shifting from vengeful fury to sudden vulnerability with total plausibility

Ok, still not a ringing endorsement, but certainly kinder than the others.

It’s worth keeping in mind that this was the show’s opening night; adjustments could be made (especially after what seems like a near-consensus (negative) on Thandie’s performance); and reactions could be different after several more runs of the show; or nothing could change, reactions stay the same, and Thandie wears this one like the Scarlet Letter on her stage resume.

Obviously, I haven’t seen the show (though I wonder if MsWOO plans to, since she lives in London – ahem), so I can’t comment on her performance in it; but I generally like Thandie Newton as an actress. My only reference to the play, as already noted, was the Polanski movie, and Sigourney Weaver’s performance in it, which, as I said earlier, was strong. She was quite raw in it, as I recall; I believed her. But I’d like to think Thandie could “let go,” with a similar kind of reckless abandon, and match her intensity on stage, even though I’d say Weaver’s overall physicality trumps Newton’s.

Ah well… *shrug*

Might a revival run on Broadway be forthcoming? Who knows. If it does well in the UK, it might travel, as others have done recently. Also, it hasn’t been performed on Broadway since 1992, so a revival might be in someone’s sights (likely minus Thandie though).

Anyway, good luck to her for the rest of the show’s run. It’s a challenging role to play.