Originally a novel, Manuel Puig’s Kiss of a Spider Woman has been adapted into an Academy award-winning film, a stage play (by Allan Baker and Puig himself), and a musical by Kandor and Ebb. The love story is between unlikely cellmates in 1975 Buenos Aires: an effete window dresser imprisoned for the lewd behaviour and corruption of a minor, and a leftist political radical fighting against the authoritarian Argentinian regime. Part of its resonance is found in the isolation of two contrasting characters and their subsequent intimacy. Alienated from the outside world in their remote confines, they are given the freedom to find comfort, and even fulfilment, with each other.
And yet in José Rivera’s and Baker’s new adaptation, these confines are devoid of potency. The environment neither evokes a feeling of seclusion nor does it foster a potential for fierce passion. Designer Jon Bausor creates an enclosed cell with pillars but the walls are left open, and the cell extends into the rest of the prison with other cell doors looming above. Occasionally director Laurie Sansom allows Samuel Barnett and Declan Bennett to step outside of their walled parameters. The design leads to a vacuity of the space, which then seems to necessitate an overwrought and unnecessary rain climax to inject a romantic resonance that’s otherwise vacant.
Perhaps we are shown too much. Barnett’s Molina recounts in detail his favourite films to Valentin, which include a love story about a panther woman and a Nazi propaganda film. They act like lullabies, glimpses of a dreamworld full of romance, tragedy, and glamour, that lies somewhere outside the prison walls. Yet Sansom appends literal projections of these stories onto the walls, bringing Molina’s escapist visions into the space itself. While the film vignettes are lyrically painted by Barnett, the cartoon images around him detract and flatten the richness of Molina’s narrations. And the conversations between Barnett’s Molina and the Warden, played by Grace Cookey-Gam, are weighted down with heavy exposition.
Barnett as Molina is still great. He’s exaggerated and endearing, full of poise and still compassionate. Even though the script fails to fully explicate Molina’s reasons behind his actions, Barnett gives a rousing performance. Bennett’s Valentin is a smart contrast, more understated and meditative, but with bursts of outward passion. Even so, the performances don’t save an adaptation that feels rather perfunctory, as it goes through the motions of performing Puig’s most famous work without actively engaging with it.
For instance, recent academic criticism of Puig’s novel suggests that Molina is better identified as a transgender women, given Molina’s own subjective analysis of personal identity. Rivera and Baker’s adaptation conforms to previous theatrical performances (and early interpretations of the novel) and articulates Molina as a gay man. It’s a complicated subject, and one has to wonder whether this interpretation limits the examinations of sexuality and gender in the text, and, importantly, risks erasing a trans or non-conforming gender perspective from the narrative in order to privilege a cis one.
Kiss of the Spider Woman is well acted but lacks any absorbing insight or rigour expected from a new adaptation. Slick but slight, it leaves you with the desire to delve into the other permutations of Puig’s masterpiece and extract more from what is clearly a complex and poignant story.
Kiss of the Spider Woman is on at Menier Chocolate Factory until 5th May. Book tickets here.