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Kiss of the Spider Woman review at Menier Chocolate Factory, London – ‘moments of beauty’

Kiss of the Spider Woman at Menier Chocolate Factory. Photo: Tristram Kenton Samuel Barnett and Declan Bennett in Kiss of the Spider Woman at Menier Chocolate Factory. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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It has been a novel, a play, a film, another play and a musical. Now Manuel Puig’s love story has been adapted for the stage again, this time by Jose Rivera and Allan Baker.

Where the novel married varying styles, this adaptation settles on one: the dialogue between Molina and Valentin, prisoners in an Argentine jail.

Valentin is a political prisoner while Molina faces a charge of ‘gross indecency’. They’re the classic odd couple: one alpha-masculine, the other effete.

Whereas Puig’s Molina identified somewhere between a gay man and a trans woman, here Rivera and Baker remove much of the gender ambiguity; this is a story about two men.

Rivera has said that the changes are meant to “liberate Puig from his own time and place”, but the novelist’s own approach to gender, and its irrelevance, feels far more powerful than Rivera and Baker’s slightly trans-erasing interpretation.

To pass the time, and escape the hellishness in the cell, Molina describes films he has seen in great detail and Valentin conjures them in his mind.

Laurie Sansom’s production, set in Jon Bausor’s rundown concrete cell, brilliantly draws out that contrast between fantasy and reality.

When Valentin’s fantasies start, the lights change and projections appear on the walls. As elegant as they are, all gently moving silhouettes, they diminish the very idea of why Molina is describing them, which is to provoke imagination. They do all the work for us. Still, they do provide variety in tone and texture, and show off Paul Anderson’s lovely lighting.

There’s a mismatch in acting styles between Samuel Barnett as Molina and Declan Bennett playing Valentin. They’re both great, but it feels like they’re in slightly different plays. That’s not hugely to the production’s detriment: in one sense the two characters come from different worlds, and the play looks at how those differences elide. This adaptation, after all, is about two men trying to understand the other end of the Kinsey scale.

Pale-faced Barnett is playful and full of intonation. His large gestures and glee at describing the films he remembers are clearly a mask for the humiliation he feels at being locked up, and at the psychological torture of loving Valentin.

Bennett on the other hand is very naturalistic, completely relaxed on stage, even casually scratching his balls at one point. Barnett’s is a performance, while Bennett’s feels like a lived experience. What binds the two, however, is a complete lack of self-consciousness. They are so relaxed in each other’s company, crooning and bickering like a married couple.

In that sense, Sansom’s production is about collisions of masculinity. And as the relationship becomes more tender, from bromance to full-on romance, there are real moments of beauty.

 

Samuel Barnett: ‘I’m too old for Romeo, but I do have a Hamlet in me’

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Verdict
Strong performances and moments of beauty in an imperfect adaptation of Manuel Puig’s novel
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