iss Of The Spider Woman by Manuel Puig @ Menier Chocolate Factory.
Tristram Kenton

Kiss of the Spider Woman

Reviewer's Rating

Menier Chocolate Factory’s ambitious production of Manuel Puig’s classic postmodern novel falters at times but is redeemed by some stunning individual elements. The script, a new adaptation by José Rivera and Allan Baker, struggles to pack the complexity of the book into 1 hour and 40 minutes, although it sets up two excellent acting performances.

With a dismal setting and some shockingly explicit moments, including someone soiling themselves mid-scene, it has the vibe of Sarah Kane’s In-Yer-Face theatre, although is altogether more optimistic than Kane’s bleak naturalism. The story centres on two social pariahs imprisoned for their respective non-conformities. Samuel Barnett’s vulnerable, effervescent Molina is a gay man guilty of ‘corrupting minors’, while Declan Bennett’s hyper-masculine, brooding Valentin is a communist guerrilla captured and tortured as a political prisoner. Together they share a claustrophobic cell in a bleak Argentinian jail, forming a mutual bond which leads to an unlikely romance. Any actor would relish these roles, and both Barnett and Bennett meet the challenge with exceptional honesty and flair.

The set is stunning. Brutalist concrete pillars and walkways reach up and out from the stage, trapping the audience within a bleak prison cell-block centring upon the filthy cell of Molina and Valentin. Designer Jon Bausor’s dark, oppressive space constricts and antagonises the pair. There are brief moments of liberation when Molina recounts the plots of his favourite films. These scenes of imaginative escape are accompanied by silhouetted animation projected onto the back wall, brilliantly evoking the power of the human mind over physical containment and joining the audience with the vivid mental universe of the characters.

Director Laurie Samson does his best to keep things moving with clipped, energetic exchanges, and dynamic transitions between night and day, but the logic of the plot seems to pinball against the tight cell walls and we lose sight of the play’s object. Molina occasionally drifts off to be interrogated by the Warden, a weird cardboard cut-out Roald Dahl villain played by Grace Cookey-Gam. These moments add neither to the spectacle nor the thematic investments of the play. Cookey-Gam does what she can with a bad role, but her performance jars against the depth and complexity of the other two. During their meetings, Molina is charged with acquiring information regarding his cell-mate’s revolutionary activities, a burden that comes into tension with their burgeoning romance. This aspect complicates the narrative and throws into relief some of its less convincing elements – why does a seasoned political revolutionary not foresee this eventuality?

In essence, this play is about the immersion of the individual in a cultural and political hegemony and the possibility of transcendence through intimate, unmediated human interaction. Two men, poles apart, are caged together, a physical imperative that engenders, by necessity, an emotional connection. Their love is a recognition of mutual dissatisfaction and acceptance of the imperfect. It exemplifies the irrepressibility of the human spirit and its triumph over brutality and subjugation, however temporary. Despite its wobbles, Samson’s production captures the emotional force of Puig’s novel, typified by the dazzling visual at the close. Valentin, drugged and hallucinating, sees Molina emerge on the rampart at the back of the stage in the webbed dress of the eponymous Spider Woman. Rain showers down as he stumbles, silhouetted, towards the transfigured cell-mate, a gesture of hope compromised by the revelation that Molina has been killed by Valentin’s own group. Samson leaves us with the idea that the two, terror and hope, might well be inseparable.