When I saw that the Menier’s next offering was to be Kiss of the Spider Woman, my initial reaction was – great, I’ve always wanted to see that musical. It wasn’t until a day or two before seeing the show that I discovered this is not the Kander/Ebb production from 1992 that starred Chita Rivera. This is a new dramatization by Jose Rivera and Allan Baker of Manuel Puig’s original 1976 novel, set in a Buenos Aires prison, about the developing relationship between window-dresser and film fan, Molina, and left wing political activist Valentin. The novel was originally only published in Spain and was for many years banned in Argentina. Considered Puig’s finest work, not only did it become the aforementioned award-winning Broadway musical, but Puig also adapted it as a play (1983), and it became a film in 1985.
But I hadn’t seen any of its previous incarnations and I’ve never read the book, so I was completely ignorant as to the story; and, gentle reader, if you plan to see this show and also don’t know the story, then I’m going to break one of my usual rules. I normally outline at least the initial plotline; but this time I’m going to keep you in your blissful ignorance. Because both Mrs Chrisparkle and I found this an absolutely riveting piece of drama; stunning story-telling with multi-layered characters, and visually highly impactful. And it really helped that we didn’t know where the story was going.
It’s always a delight to come to the Menier and walk down into the auditorium to see how they have rearranged everything to suit whatever new show you’re seeing. Unusually, this time, you have to walk up and into the auditorium, and then walk down to your particular row. Jon Bausor’s design for this show hits the mark from The Word Go and there is so much to take in before the play actually starts. Molina and Valentin’s cell is there in a corner; the two prisoners are on stage right from the start, quietly idling through their day. The walls to their cell are broken down and removed so we can see inside; around it, you find the most convincing representation of fresh wet mud you could ever imagine. Behind it, darkness, but which will come into use in the final scene. On a higher level, you see the walkways of the other prison cells, creating a superb, but oppressive setting of harsh, cruel prison life. You can’t imagine the prisoners in the Villa Devoto jail in Buenos Aires playing pool or benefiting from university courses.
But those walkways have an ulterior purpose. Molina whiles away the endless hours in prison, and entertains Valentin at the same time, by re-telling the plots of favourite old films. Andrzej Goulding’s brilliant projection design depicts these stories on the walkways, where silhouette characters act out Molina’s reminiscences. The silhouettes are real enough to fix those stories in our heads, but not so clearly defined that they replace our own imagination of what we’ve been told. It’s both technically impressive and artistically enjoyable.
Another of the reasons why I wanted to see this was because it has been directed by Laurie Sansom, ex-Artistic Director of the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, where he created so many memorable and extraordinary works. The last show of his we saw was the huge (in so many ways) The James Plays, where he did his usual trick of creating a seamless ensemble from a large and varied group of actors. Kiss of the Spider Woman only has three characters, so ensemble isn’t really the right word, but what Mr Sansom is so good at is creating a work where his actors have such complete trust, respect and faith in each other. You could see it in the bold relationship he created between Dionysus and Pentheus in his The Bacchae a few years ago. In this current play there are a number of scenes where Samuel Barnett as Molina and Declan Bennett as Valentin have to share a lot of intimacy and there isn’t a hair’s-breadth of awkwardness or artificiality to their stage relationship. As a result, it’s compelling and rewarding viewing; not remotely embarrassing, which would have really killed the semblance of reality.
Samuel Barnett is outstanding as Molina. Although at first he entertains us with the character’s short-tempered show-offishness, he quickly invests the character with so much kindness, and so many hidden depths, that you realise you want to find out so much more about their dreams and motivations. Mr Barnett can turn bright, cheeky comedy into sombre tragedy at the flicker of an eye. It’s a bold, funny, moving, elegant performance that stays with you long after curtain down. Declan Bennett is also fantastic as Valentin; sullen, tortured, lost in his own disgrace. It’s a superb portrayal of a powerful and charismatic leader, brought down by institutionalised deceit and corruption, and slowly, blindly, walking into the Spider Woman’s web. The third member of the cast is Grace Cookey-Gam, whose crisp and forthright performance as the warden reveals a more complex role than it might at first appear.
We saw a preview, so there’s always a chance that they might change something before press night – but that would be bizarre because it works so well as it is. I know I should really wait until after press night before reviewing, but, hey, what the hell. If I can encourage you to book quickly for this stunning production before those who wait for the first night reviews, then I will have done A Useful Thing. It’s a fascinating story, delicately told by a magnificent cast and a creative team at the top of their game. Just a short season until 5th May, but surely this should have a life after Menier? Highly recommended.
P. S. So, regular readers may well remember, the current trend for “no interval” is one of my pet hates. This show comes in at around 1 hour 40 minutes without an interval, and I do think the story and performances are strong enough to sustain a 20-minute break in the middle just to ensure the audience’s comfort. Those Menier benches aren’t the most luxurious in London and who wants to worry about needing to nip to the loo halfway through and then not being allowed back in to the auditorium?
P. P. S. I noticed Laurie Sansom deep in conversation with some guys as we were leaving. Should I interrupt and say hi, or should I just walk away? Of course, I said a quick hello. I told him it was great. I didn’t get around to telling him we’d be seeing his Nightfall at the Bridge Theatre in May too. One can be too much of a groupie.
Production photos by Nobby Clark