Theatre: Love blossoms behind bars

Written By: William Russell
Published: March 31, 2018 Last modified: March 31, 2018

Kiss of the Spider Woman

Menier Chocolate Factory, London


This Kiss of the Spider Woman is not the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical but a new version by Jose Rivera and Allan Baker.of Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel which he turned into a play six years later. It is set in a prison in Argentina during the Peron years. Molina (Samuel Barnett) is a homosexual window dresser in prison for the usual reasons. He is sharing a cell with Valentin (Declan Bennett), a Marxist activist. The play is about how they strike up a friendship, in spite of the fact Molina has been planted there by the authorities to do just that – they want him to find out what Valentin’s Marxist group is up to.

To pass the time Molina entertains his cell mate by recounting the plots of horror movies he has enjoyed, and life is helped by the food parcels his mother is said to bring him – they are actually by the authorities.

This is an effective chamber piece, but is rather lost in the Menier. Their cell is surrounded by wasteland with the audience on three sides, distanced by several feet from the players when one really needs to be almost inside the cell with them. The first time Kiss of the Spider Woman was staged here it was in the old Bush Theatre,which was tiny, and the audience were almost inside the cell. The necessary intimacy is not there in the Menier, which does detract a bit from the impact of the play.

However, both performances are very good, with Barnett avoiding excessive camping as Molina – he may be gay, but he is not done as some drag queen manqué – while Bennett is a splendid tough revolutionary.

Molina’s tales are illustrated by some hugely effective back projections – the auditorium is surrounded by a prison walk way with a line of cell doors – so that we see the events he is talking about. Possibly it is all a little bit thin in political terms, but Puig was really writing about love blossoming in appalling circumstances and the play, while showing its years, still works – although those who hanker for the Kander and Ebb will probably be disappointed.