Of The Spider Woman
Menier Chocolate Factory Spring 2018
Manuel Puig's novel-turned-play-turned-film-turned-musical is now turned back into a play in a new adaptation by Jose Rivera and Allan Baker that is more focused and intimate than any of its predecessors.
All versions have the same plot – Molina, a homosexual, and Valentin, a political revolutionary, share an Argentine prison cell, those descriptive tags also identifying their crimes.
With nothing in common except proximity, they slowly become friends and even lovers, helped along in the process by Molina's filling the empty hours recounting the plots of the melodramatic B movies he adores.
Stripped of its specifics, this is a story of two unalike men bonding, and it is that intimate level that Rivera and Baker's adaptation focuses on. The movie-plot-telling is reduced to brief episodes and Valentin's political lectures almost completely cut, leaving us to appreciate the tiny increments by which the men move closer together.
This gives the two actors, Samuel Barnett and Declan Bennett, the opportunity for very subtle and touching performances that hold our attention and sympathy without the aid (or interference) of other characters and subplots, as in the novel, or more spectacular effects, as in the musical. (Actress Grace Cookey-Gam also appears, generously serving the play in a couple of small roles.)
Samuel Barnett has the flashier role as Molina, but wisely and sensitively avoids any temptation (not escaped by some of his predecessors in the role) to go over the top in flamboyant effeminacy.
In the novel Molina is a transexual, but here Barnett makes him a warm, almost motherly figure, unmistakably gay but also a man of some emotional depth and moral fibre, never even approaching self-parody. That is, in fact, a very thin line to walk, and it is much to the actor's credit that he never crosses it.
A plot twist carried over from the novel lets us see that Molina is much stronger than we might have assumed, and Barnett makes that new information both believable and enriching of the characterisation.
Valentin is a much more repressed and seemingly simpler character, and Declan Bennett's challenge and achievement lie in letting us see aspects of the man he himself is not aware of.
Valentin's evolution from cold political dogmatism to warm and vulnerable humanity could be nothing more than plot cliche in less able hands, but Bennett's quiet underplaying movingly and convincingly takes the character through the process.
Director Laurie Sansom is to be credited for guiding these two different but equally successful characterisations and for finding, with designers Jon Bausor and Andrzej Goulding, an effective way to bring the evocation of Molina's movies into the play without overwhelming it.
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