They seat you on long armless rows of seats, and give you plenty of leg room. Most importantly they put you within whispering distance of the actors, in a dark, rather stark space, which was just as well as Will Keen, playing Molina, the ageing homosexual who just wants to find someone who’ll treat him like a ‘proper’ woman, kicked off speaking so softly people were craning to hear him, drawing you in as he whisperingly recounted the plot of a film with dramatic gestures and invented extras, to while away the long days in the Argentinean prison cell where the entire play is based.
Maunuel Puig’s play contrasts the creative inner life of two unlikely bedfellows with their outer restrictions; Molina clucks around his young Marxist cellmate Valentin (Rupert Evans, downplaying the rather obvious political vigour of the character), but in a rather automatic way, sharing his food and nursing him when he becomes sick, while telling him in teasing snatches the story of his favourite film, The Cat People. Valentin at first poo-pooh’s the concept of the film while dreaming just as energetically of an equally unreal ‘ideal’ society, then becomes increasingly engrossed in his fellow prisoner’s rendition.
They begin discussing their emotional reactions to the characters until they are living deep within the fantasy. However Valentin is not as gauche and unimportant as he seems at first, as the unpleasantness of his stay in prison is gradually revealed, nor is Molina a benign old queen. Seemingly prey to his softer, emotional side, deeply tied to his mother, Molina none the less identifies with the destructive, detached heroine of the film. It is no surprise when part way through he is revealed to be a informer, seeking Valentin’s confidence, nor is it meant to be. Keen plays Molina as a watchful, tense presence, darting all over the place, but we are never quite sure of his purpose. Director Charlotte Westernra does a wonderful job of slowly building up the layers of character and perhaps wisely doesn’t seek to insert pace to what is a notoriously slow burning drama.
Kiss of the Spider Woman runs on two levels. It began life as a book and it retains much of the subtle rendition of the inner lives of the characters, and carefully avoids resolving who is doing what for what reason. Some people who look at this aspect of it may complain that it’s two men puttering about in a cell, doing nothing and going nowhere, for a very long time. On another broader level it can be seen as a drama about illicit love with two pivotal moments, middle and end, and not a lot else. Looked at from this angle it’s aged badly.
Back in the early 80s it caused a huge stir – not only did it feature a plea for gay recognition, it even has someone shitting on stage. No one with a lefty conscience could fail to approve of it despite its snail’s pace.
Nearly three decades on the Donmar is the perfect space for a revival of such an infamous piece which no longer has shock value, providing instead a setting for intimately mulling over the various nuances that we were probably too busy to notice back then.
On the jutting stage (small, but none the less quite difficult for just two actors to fill) by the end of the play the audience are beginning to feel as trapped as the characters. Their brief and somewhat inevitable coupling is genuinely moving, and the unresolved implications of it twist any message of hope the audience might wish to take away.
If you can get into the right mindset this is a beautifully directed piece from which a great deal of quiet pleasure can be drawn.