|Will Keen as Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman|
Review Round-up: Critics Caught in Spider's Web?
Date: 27 April 2007
An altered ending and an undisclosed location have this week split London critics attending Charlotte Westenra’s new revival of Kiss of the Spider Woman, which plays 25 April to 26 May 2007 (previews from 19 April) at the Donmar Warehouse before hitting Liverpool, Bristol and Salford (See News, 28 Mar 2007).
The play - based on Manuel Puig’s novel set in an Argentine prison in 1976 - has maintained the same ending through numerous translations, an Academy Award-winning film and a 1993 Kander and Ebb Broadway musical. Nevertheless, Westenra has chosen to cut short the tale of love and deception for the Donmar production while removing any sense of defined location.
Irrespective of ending and locale, critics have praised the turn of Will Keen – who stepped in at the eleventh hour when Iain Glen withdrew - as Molina, a middle-aged man jailed for his overt sexuality. Co-star Rupert Evans as young Marxist rebel Valentin also receives several words of commendation.
In the play, the two seemingly contrasting prisoners are forced to share a cell. Molina passes the time recounting and reinventing the plot and images of 1942 RKO movie Cat People about a woman who believes she can transform into a panther. As the bond between the men grows, so too does the threat of betrayal.
Michael Coveney for Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - "Will Keen, shaven-headed and finical, wrapped in a Japanese silk kimono over his prison clothes, is a dead ringer for Rocky Horror author Richard O'Brien and has something, too, of that artist’s clipped, dry delivery. Rupert Evans is a helpless victim at all times, pained and bearded, drawn into describing his political activity and inevitably into Molina’s bed, where brisk sexual penetration under the regulation blanket is achieved during a storm-tossed evening. A voice-over (sounding suspiciously like David Ryall) becomes increasingly prevalent, but Westenra has chosen to delete the final revelatory twist in which Molina has second thoughts about his campaign. We’re left with the distinct impression, false to the play, that the waltz of betrayal between the two men is precisely, and finally, that. Still, the production is another impeccable Donmar presentation, with Ben Stones designing a prison of deceptively transparent walls where we catch glimpses of the guards and where Hartley T A Kemp’s lighting and John Leonard’s sound design conspire to convey a sense of both political danger and forbidden sensuality."
Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) - "Although Puig's fable started as a novel and has been turned into a movie and a musical, I fail to see its appeal, except as an opportunity for a virtuoso performance. The action takes a long time to develop. If the play works at all, it is as an ironic love story: through his bond with Valentin, Molina is led into an act of unwitting betrayal. The evening's only other virtue is that it provides a showcase for the talent of Will Keen as Molina. Keen has a Guinness-like gift for stealthy transformation. Here he turns himself into someone doubly imprisoned: as a cell inmate and as a woman trapped inside a man's body. And he conveys Molina's inherent femininity with the subtlest of touches: the way he lightly holds a cup with little finger crooked, or by his emphasis on hard, climactic consonants. Keen neither flounces nor prances, but implies Molina's sexual duality through his graceful economy. But, at the end of the day, Puig's play is an etiolated fable that celebrates a belated sexual awakening without shedding new light on life in a police state."
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) - "Does the two-hander merit the revival that Charlotte Westenra gives it now? Yes, though I don't know why she cuts the original ending, for the effect is like stopping Hamlet just before the killer-duel with Laertes. This means that the emphasis is firmly, almost too firmly, on the growing bond between Will Keen’s Molina, a self-professed 'screaming queen' in prison for homosexuality, and Rupert Evans’ Valentin, who is the sort of dedicated Marxist and would-be revolutionary not liked in 1976 Buenos Aires. If you crave dramatic ideas, they’re there in abundance. But you always feel you’re in the presence of people, not abstract themes."
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (three stars) - “Good place for a South American prison play, the Donmar Warehouse. Not only is it an overheated and uncomfortable theatre, which is how you imagine an Argentine prison cell to be. Its rectangular stage is also close to the stage, intimate … (but) there isn’t much that is Argentine about this production. (Keen’s) is a performance of great devotion. He really throws himself into the role.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Despite its world-conquering success, (Kiss of the Spider Woman) struck me as a deeply dreary, depressingly predictable piece of work. I can think of pleasanter ways of spending an evening than watching an actor pretending to have diarrhoea. And the way the hardline Marxist and the sad fantasist - the latter obsessed with his mother and fervently wishing that he, too, were a woman - finally become staunch friends and lovers struck me as predictable and trite rather than moving. What little plot there is proves simultaneously dull and confusing, while the final scene is at once sentimental and cruel. Will Keen undoubtedly gives an exceptional performance. Even his precise, hypnotic delivery can't make the description of the old movie interesting, but the sense of unconditional love he brings to the closing minutes is undoubtedly affecting. Unless your idea of fun is being banged up in a squalid prison for two-and-a-half hours, I'd give the show a miss.”
- by Malcolm Rock
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