EmptyDonmar Warehouse, London
Through May 26
LONDON -- Manuel Puig's "Kiss of the Spider Woman" is about two very different men who are incarcerated together by harsh rulers and discover aspects of themselves they would never have imagined. In the Donmar Warehouse's new production, Allan Baker's translation and Charlotte Westenra's direction seem more interested in things sexual than political and as a result the power of the story is muted.
William Hurt won best actor awards at the Oscars, the BAFTAs, and the Festival de Cannes for his performance as Luis in Hector Babenco's 1985 film version. As a feminized gay, jailed for sexual transgressions, who escapes from his prison cell by performing scenes from real and imagined romantic films, Hurt's charismatic flamboyance is not easily forgotten. Nor is Raul Julia's equally powerful performance as Valentin, a stern and macho revolutionary imprisoned for fighting the repressive regime.
At the Donmar, Will Keen, as Luis, is memorable playing a woman trapped in a man's body. His body is strong and masculine but his voice is high and mechanical and his movement is graceful and fey to the point of arching his little finger holding a teacup. Luis has a sick mother who brings the occasional care package and it's her wellbeing as much as anything that makes him pine for release from the prison.
When the rebellious Valentin (Rupert Evans) is placed in his cell, the offstage voice of their persecutor makes it plain to Luis that if he informs on Valentin then not only will the food parcels increase in frequency and nourishment, but he will get an early release.
The stage is then set for intrigue on several levels and it might have more resonance in this production if Evans were older and more powerful. But he's young and tremulous so Luis's decision to both rat on him and seduce him does not amount to any great challenge.
The revelatory moments for each man should involve not just acquiescence but empathy, the rejection of prejudice and embrace of another point of view. It's not clear in Westenra's direction just how won over Luis has been to the importance of Valentin's political struggle. He seems pretty much satisfied getting him into the sack.
It's not Evans's fault that he is miscast and he does a good job of conveying Valentin's anguish over not being a good enough revolutionary. Westenra stages the before and after lovemaking scenes with power and the set is made suitably claustrophobic by Hartley T.A. Kemp's design with a backdrop of prison bars and a decaying wall. It is Keen's measured lead performance, however, that sticks in the mind.
KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN
Playwright: Manuel Puig, translation by Allan Baker
Director: Charlotte Westenra
Designer: Ben Stones
Lighting designer: Hartley T.A. Kemp
Sound designer: John Leonard
Luis Alberto Molina: Will Keen
Valentin Arregui Paz: Rupert Evans