Kiss of the Spider Woman was written by Manuel Puig while he was living in exile, and combines three things that shaped his life: sex, revolution and movies. This adaptation of the novel by Jose Riviera and Allan Baker brings the novel to life at the Menier Chocolate Factory after it premiered as a play at the Bush Theatre in the 1970s.
Imprisoned in a dank cell in Argentina are Molina and Valentin, the former an effeminate film addict who passes the time by retelling the plots to his favourite flicks, the latter a hardened revolutionary who would do what it takes to "change the world". Though they seem the polar opposites of each other, they only have the other for company.
While Valentin enjoys Molina’s stories, which are wonderfully projected as silhouettes onto the prison walls as he tells them, Molina is befriending his bunkmate as he has been tasked with dishing the dirt to the warden. None the less, the pair share some tender moments - Molina bathes Valentin who has been rendered useless by a poisoned meal - and a relationship develops. A surprise to no one, but it’s the journey to it that’s intriguing.
The play is set in 70s Argentina, and the novel was written in 1976, but as feminism has entered the public consciousness more and more, and been applied to the concept of masculinity; anything considered to be masculine has been generalised to be ‘toxic’. Valentin is as machismo as it gets: he works out in the cell, struggles to keep a hold of his temper, and can’t fully grasp Molina’s sexuality. But the play proves none of these things are necessarily toxic by their nature, there’s nothing wrong with being ‘manly’. Being masculine and straight don’t go hand in hand, but it’s the lack of understanding and pressures surrounding the issue that men struggle with and are the problem. In a lonely prison cell, there are none of these pressures, and just your one cellmate to try and understand.
That said, it doesn’t make this couple’s journey to love any more believable. Sure, Valentin’s very grateful for the care Molina is providing, but his stubborn matter-of-fact demeanour make it difficult to emphathise with him.
It is wonderfully acted, though. Confined for almost two hours (they’re both in place as you enter the Menier) to their tight cell, Samuel Barnett is wistful as the doting Molina, Declan Bennett gives Valentin an intelligent, ruffian quality. Both are equally poetic in Jose Riviera and Allan Baker’s new version of the play, but that contradicts the clammy atmosphere of the jail.
Jon Bausor’s set encompasses the theatre with doors leading to other cells, and Andrzej Goulding’s noir projections during the film sequences are beautiful. But the play, while it does raise conversations about men, masculinity and sexuality, just doesn’t click.
Kiss of the Spider Woman is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 5th May
Kiss of the Spider Woman Tickets are available now.