José Riviera and Allan Baker’s new adaptation of Manuel Puig’s iconic 1976 novel ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’ is a solid but faintly perplexing piece of programming.
Yes, Puig’s story about Molina and Valentin, two prisoners in an Argentinian jail who find a transgressive intimacy in the dark is timeless, moving and still somewhat bracing. But it’s already been adapted into a play, a film, and Kander & Ebb’s iconic musical, and it’s questionable what this new version is really bringing to the table. Both text and Laurie Samson’s production feel adrift from the 2018 gender conversation – Molina is one of literature’s most famous trans women, but I’m not sure this feels explored here: it essentially comes across as a piece about two men.
Still, Samuel Barnett is excellent in the role of Molina: fraying, lonely, desperate and guilt-stricken, spewing feelings like vomit as he nervously befriends taciturn political prisoner Valentin with the intent of betraying him to secure early release. At first his only other escape from this place is in his lavishly embellished accounts of the plots of lurid old films with doomed female protagonists. But something blossoms between the pair in the gloom, a pure physical love that has its root in intimacy, trust and shared humanity.
Less good is Declan Bennett. Brilliant in ‘Once’ and the Open Air Theatre’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, he’s great in this sort of role in a musical, but just not a nuanced enough dramatic actor to carry off a virtual two-hander. Yes, Valentin is supposed to be the tough, emotionally unavailable guy. But his blaring delivery gives him the air of a Hollywood action hero trying desperately to show us his sensitive side. And there’s little sexual chemistry between the two leads.
Jon Bausor’s semi-derelict prison set is nifty, and some nice projection design from Andrzej Goulding injects a bit of glamour into the gloom during Molina’s storytelling sessions.
This is a sturdy production with a fine turn from Barnett. However, none of this quite vindicates the endeavour. If only there had been some sort of musical version they could have done instead…