Menier Chocolate Factory, London – until 5 May 2018
My relationship with Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman is a complex one. I’ve read the novel three times now and studied it for my degree. The thick web of thematic, generic and psychological intrigue (a Freudian analysis of ‘anal retention’, anyone?), not to mention the translation aspect – along with other contributing factors, namely depression, anxiety and the strain of being a perfectionist – caused me to have a nervous breakdown towards the end of my 21st Century Lit module.
Yet, despite being entwined with a difficult period of my life, I remain adamant that Spider Woman is one of my favourite pieces of literature ever. So it’s safe to say that I had pretty high expectations for José Rivera and Allan Baker’s new stage adaptation, and while there are moments of beauty, nothing in Laurie Sansom’s production quite reaches the heights of Puig’s original narrative.
Cell mates Molina (Samuel Barnett) and Valentin (Declan Bennett) while away the hours of darkness by retelling old Hollywood B Movies, reminiscing about their former lovers and cooking delicacies on their tiny camp hob. Valentin is a political prisoner, fighting for social revolution in Argentina. The openly gay Molina has been incarcerated for gross indecency. Repressed in different ways the two prisoners initially have little in common, but over the course of the play they bond through small acts of kindness and a compelling need for escapism.
It’s a simple but effective set up, focused on storytelling and interpretive influence. Puig’s writing lends itself well to the stage; the novel is written almost completely in dialogue, so an adapter could easily just lift much of the script from there. However, the magic of this generic literary style is in being required to read between the lines, of being complicit in your own understanding of the story, and unfortunately, Rivera and Baker’s literal fleshing out of the story has robbed it of that necessary quality.
Puig’s famous footnotes, sparked by seemingly inconsequential phrases, transport the surface plot into a theoretical world of psychological, political and spiritual meatiness. Unable to fully realise the footnotes in a satisfactorily theatrical manner means that Rivera and Baker instead have a tendency to overstate the obvious and remove any thematic subtlety. As Barnett makes his final entrance elegantly draped in a silken webbed dress, I couldn’t help but feel that Molina’s appearance as the titular Spider Woman is better implied than realised in such a literal fashion. Moments like this appear to oversimplify Puig’s intense and rambling examination of gender identity and politics.
Despite this pickiness on my part, Rivera, Baker and Sansom succeed most during the epilogue. Valentin’s drug-fuelled stream of consciousness during what are possibly his dying thoughts comes across beautifully on stage. Finally escaping from his island of incarceration, he lives out his final moments on a picturesque island of tranquillity, accompanied by a woman he maybe knows and maybe loves. They walk, hand in hand, through an unearthly waterfall, silhouetted against movie-star spotlights, and the final lines of the play echo those of Puig’s novel, which remains amongst the most exquisite endings in the literary canon; ‘this dream is short, but this dream is happy’. It is a moment of cinematic bliss of which Molina would be proud. Sob.
Elsewhere, Sansom’s direction is equivocal in its theatrical intent. There’s an air of desperation in the projections which illustrate Molina’s movies. For an artform which is built on the tradition of oral narratives, there’s a distinct lack of trust in the power of oration alone – not to mention Barnett’s superlative performance – as well as a patronising underestimation of the audiences’ imaginative capacities. Yet, where the story provides an authentic scope for dramatic splendour, Sansom holds back. Molina’s love of romantic, sentimental ballads and arias would be the perfect opportunity for a dramatic and entertaining frisson, and there’s no doubt that both Barnett and Bennett can sing their socks off! – yet we get nothing from that teasing titbit.
Nevertheless, we are often told to judge plays, and all forms of art, on what they are, not what we want them to be. In this case, then, I have nothing but praise for the central performances. Barnett is charming and suitably theatrical as Molina, but also displays a steeliness and capriciousness which gives the character depth and avoids turning him into a stereotype. His bruised revelations about the falseness of his outside relationships is a raw and truthful, albeit brief, contrast with the character’s silver-screen fantasies. Bennett is a quiet, brooding presence, yet when Valentin opens up he affords the character with sincerity and sensitivity. Sadly, Grace Cookey-Gam is wasted in the superfluous role of the Prison Warden, and, while Barnett and Bennett’s performances are definite pluses for this production, there remains an unease surrounding the blatant whitewashing of what is a fundamentally South American story.
Jon Bausor’s design is a triumph in understated realism. The camp beds look suitably uncomfortable, and the tiled walls are awash with grime. Small touches, such as the faded posters which adorn the concrete pillars of the Menier auditorium and the real-time preparation of food, ensure that the cell feels like a lived in, domesticated space, highlighting the prisoners’ growing ease and attachment to each other and the importance of small, frivolous comforts. As mentioned previously, Bausor and lighting designer Paul Anderson come into their own during the epilogue, and create a strong lasting impression.
Kiss of the Spider Woman may have suffered from directly succeeding The Inheritance in my theatre-going diary. Undoubtedly, Lopez’s play is the superior dramaturgical exploration of sexuality, politics and storytelling, yet I admire the attempt to translate a ‘difficult’ novel to the stage. And while Puig’s masterpiece doesn’t quite work when fleshed into a physical entity, I am reminded of the unique and all-conquering power of the human imagination, and I am forever thankful that stories such as this are produced and continue to make people think, feel and dream.