Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Theatre review: Kiss of the Spider Woman

Manuel Puig's novel Kiss of the Spider Woman seems to be of endless fascination to theatremakers - I saw a stage version at the Donmar Warehouse in 2007, and there also exists a notoriously Marmite Kander and Ebb musical on the subject. But for the Menier Chocolate Factory production, Laurie Sansom uses another new adaptation, by Motorcycle Diaries screenwriter José Rivera and American playwright Allan Baker. The setting is a jail cell in 1970s Argentina, a time when the junta regularly imprisoned and tortured political dissidents like Valentin (Declan Bennett.) He shares this space with Molina (Samuel Barnett,) a gay window dresser convincted of gross indecency. The two have little in common, but bond when Molina starts to tell his cellmate bedtime stories to help him sleep.

The title is a pastiche of 1940s horror movies, Molina's favourites which he recounts in great detail every night - particularly Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie.

When the two get sick from poisoned prison food, they have to look after each other and start to become friends, trying to understand each other's passions, and eventually developing a sexual relationship. But Molina is secretly playing a dangerous game: He occasionally meets with a guard (Grace Cookey-Gam,) securing food packages and the promise of an early release, in exchange for attempting to get the details of Valentin's rebel cell from him; in fact he refuses to listen to any information even when his friend volunteers it, assuring Valentin that he could never keep his secrets under torture.

Sansom's production has hauntingly memorable visuals, Jon Bausor making clever use of the Chocolate Factory's shell to create grey walkways with a cell door every few feet, while the central cell is more immediately surrounded by piles of mud - creating the effect of the men being buried away in the middle of nowhere, forgotten among endless similar cells. It contrasts with Andrzej Goulding's projection design, which kicks in every time Molina recounts one of his old movies, and silhouettes appear on the prison walls.

A bit odd is the fact that the production plays down the suggestion that Molina is, in the way we understand the terms nowadays, closer to identifying as transgender than gay; there's only the vaguest of allusions to the fact that he might have been better off born a woman. I only really twigged because I'd seen a version of the story before; and going from the laughter that greeted Barnett's appearance in the dreamlike epilogue, dressed as the mythical Spider Woman, I'd say it wasn't how most of the audience had viewed the character. (It's also a bit odd to see that Barnett's been working out - especially since he seems to have gone from waif-like to muscular just in time to play a starving prisoner. On the other hand, him playing a window-dresser reminds me I'm overdue my annual re-watch of Beautiful People*.)

Other than that though it's an interesting evening, giving opportunities for the actors, especially Barnett, to give intense performances. Possibly because the projections help delineate very clearly between the inside of the prison and the fantasy movie world, the overall style might be a bit too naturalistic for the lyrical element of the story to really take hold - the mysterious, open-ended conclusion doesn't sit entirely comfortably with what we've been presented with until that point. But for the most part this sucks you into the story of hope inside a world of despair, and the short running time feels even shorter.

Kiss of the Spider Woman by José Rivera and Allan Baker, based on the novel by Manuel Puig, is booking until the 5th of May at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Nobby Clark, Tristram Kenton.

*of course, a lot of things have been reminding me of that, such as spotting Sarah Niles in the audience for Misty and having to suppress the urge to mutter "all right Reba... slut" under my breath.

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