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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Kiss of the Spider Woman

If you read you can transcend every cell you're in.
---- Valentin
The Kiss of the Spider Woman
Rupert Evans as Valentin and Will Keen as Molina
(Photo: Johann Persson)
It's strange isn't it, but maybe reassuring, how something that shocks one generation may be transformed into the merely titillating for the next. I was expecting to be lulled out of my theatre going complacency by the Donmar's revival of Manuel Puig's The Kiss of the Spider Woman but it didn't happen. Instead I was blown away by Will Keen's mesmerising performance as Luis Alberto Molina, the imprisoned gay man who finds himself sharing a prison cell with the Marxist who likes middle class girls, Valentin Arregui Paz (Rupert Evans). So this review will attempt to apportion the credit for Will Keen's affecting portrayal. Is it down to the skill of the actor, or the talent of the director, Charlotte Westenra, or the words of Puig's original novel or indeed Allan Baker's translation?

I think I may go on to read Puig's novel because of the passages in which Molina describes those second rate B movies with the skill of a great storyteller, one who could earn his living just telling stories in the age before mass media delivered "ready to go" entertainment. Molina takes a tacky film and makes it sound romantic and mysterious and suspenseful. In fact were I Valentin I would be sitting on the edge of my prison bed trying to encourage Molina to continue. Although I would want to know how it concluded, I wouldn't want it to end. I know too that the actual film has to be a terrible disappointment; it could never live up to the haunting narrative. Imagination puts the most vivid pictures in the mind's eye. I suspect too that on seeing the film, this critic would be taken up with the differences between the film and Molina's version, like one of those drawings in newspapers where you have to find ten changes from the original.

Molina has agreed to extract information from Valentin at the request of the prison authorities but he also seems to regret that Valentin has been poisoned with his knowledge. I found the ending ambiguous. I wasn't convinced that Molina was to pass information to Valentin's political activists on the outside. It seemed to me that he could just as easily be passing the information to the prison authorities in return for release or an easier life in prison or even that he would be followed on release and unwittingly betray Valentin. The sex scene was not the lyrical culmination of a great romance but a nervous grope between two isolated people. The programme makes much of the political situation in Argentina and the numbers of political activists who disappeared but I failed to find this in the Donmar's production.

What is remarkable is how Will Keen portrays this woman trapped in a man's body. From the tiny, delicate wrist watch on his arm to his feminine gestures, he convinces as a feminine persona without ever becoming camp. He is outrageous but almost balletic in his graceful movement as he hangs around the cell in his embroidered kimono. He is elegant and has a natural charm with delicate arm and hand gestures. There are small feminine movemnets like when he bares his elbow to test the temperature of the water for Valentin as a mother does for her baby. Rupert Evans has the less rewarding and less memorable role but gives his Marxist idealist a certain naivete, as well as youth and singleness of purpose.

As in all deprived situations, the conversation turns to sex; and food and the ability to wash dominate their existence. John Leonard has given us atmospheric noises of other prisoners and footsteps and coupled with lighting shifts we get an impression of the daily routine in the prison. The set while pretty, with interesting shadows through the slatted wood, and concrete pillars with rough broken edges, is more spacious that one imagines most South American prison cells to be. Charlotte Westenra never has a static moment in this play. Directed with the audience seated round three sides of the square she keeps things fluid and never blocked. Magnificent as Keen's performance is, as a piece of theatre The Kiss of the Spider Woman doesn't illuminate the human condition.
Written by Manuel Puig
Translated by Allan Baker
Directed by Charlotte Westenra

Starring: Will Keen and Rupert Evans
Design: Ben Stones
Lighting: Hartley T A Kemp
Sound: John Leonard
Running time: One hour 50 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6624
Booking to 26th May 2007
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 26th April 2007 performance at the Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London WC2 (Tube: Covent Garden)
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