Manuel Puig’s 1974 novel of love and entrapment in an unspecified Latin American prison cell has gone through so many transformations that Charlotte Westenra’s Donmar Warehouse revival might seem superfluous to requirements. But the powerful friendship that grows between the Marxist revolutionary, Valentin, and the gay window dresser, Molina, who sees himself as a woman, exerts an undiminished fascination.
The play was first performed here in the mid-1980s at the Bush, where Simon Callow as Molina and Mark Rylance as Valentin played with ferocious, hysterical intensity in stark contrast to the more measured Donmar performances of Will Keen and Rupert Evans.
Then came the film starring William Hurt (Hurt won an Oscar) and Raul Julia and finally a wonderful musical by John Kander, Fred Ebb and Terrence McNally, directed by Hal Prince (at the Shaftesbury in 1992) with Chita Rivera as both Molina’s screen idol and a figure of death and entrapment, the spider woman.
In the play, located specifically in the Villa Devoto prison in Buenos Aires, we hear the spider woman’s high heels mashed up in the sound effects, but she remains a cat-like creature of prey in Molina’s episodic recounting of a favourite trashy B movie. Molina has been convicted of corrupting minors, while Valentin, 12 years his junior at the age of 24, is an object of ongoing investigation. Just how ongoing becomes gradually apparent as he begins to develop sickness from the prison food. Molina cleans him up and comforts him, but his watchfulness is really surveillance.
As the screws are turned, there are some striking philosophical asides about the nature of sexuality – the idea, for instance, that if men were more like women there would be no more torture – and the increasing pressures of life in a police state. In this way the play becomes one of universal topicality, but whereas the musical expanded the generalities and literally poured them through the outrageous flamboyance of Brent Carver’s big, expressive Molina, the play is assembled in deft touches of revelation and tactical adjustments.
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.