Review/interview: Kiss of the Spider Woman, intimate study of human behaviour, directed by Sylvaine Strike, on stage in Cape Town

What: Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig
Where: The Baxter Golden Arrow Studio, Cape Town
When: March 9-26, 2022 at 7.30pm, with Saturday matinees at 2.30pm
Performers: Mbulelo Grootboom and Wessel Pretorius
Director: Sylvaine Strike
Lighting design: Mannie Manim
Set and costume design: Wolf Britz
Music: Brendan Jury
Running time: Two hours – no interval
Tickets: Webtickets

Delayed gestation birthed on stage

A “delayed gestation”, was how director Sylvaine Strike, described to me, the postponed season of Kiss of the Spider Woman, which was scheduled to be staged at the Baxter last year-June 2021. The run was halted due to Covid related issues. It was a bitter disappointment for the cast, creative team and audience. Now, March 2022 Kiss of the Spider Woman has finally manifested, birthed, live on stage, in the Baxter Golden Arrow Studio, Cape Town. I had to pinch myself -sitting in the theatre- watching the birthing of this play -in the pandemic. The pandemic has throttled live performance- stopping the gestation of so many theatre pieces as they were about to be staged- delaying their gestation. Strike has conjured up an epic, multi layered theatrical experience in which the personal and political are thrashed out in an intense two hours. Kiss of the Spider Woman – the novel was written in 1976, by Manuel Puig. It was translated from Spanish, into English by Allan Baker. There was a play of the same name and an Oscar winning film (1985), starring William Hurt and Raul Julia. By the way, Hurt died last week – March 1, 2022, age 71. There was also a musical, Kiss of the Spider Woman. Strike has staged the play.

Tenderness, kindness and dignity

In, Kiss of the Spider Woman, we gaze, into the prison cell of Molina (Wessel Pretorius) and Valentin (Mbulelo Grootboom). The two are very different in terms of personality, ideology and identities- gender, emotional, ideological.  In the tight confines of the prison cell, a tender rapport evolves as they draw comfort, solace, kindness and dignity from each other and ultimately accept each other. There is a terrific synergy between Wessel Pretorius and Mbulelo Grootboom – an ease as they occupy the tiny space. I loved the use of the hammock as they are suspended in a liminal space in which they are free to connect with each other and their selves. Evocative set and costume design by Wolf Britz and lighting design by Mannie Manim.

It is revealed in the play, why this pair are lumped together but I won’t plot spoil. The illusion dangling before us, is juxtaposed with the reality which is teased out in voice-overs when Molina steps out of the cell and interacts with the prison wardens. Parallel realities ultimately collide with a denouement which is emotionally wrenching but also liberating.

The production is over two hours – no interval. Get to the bathroom before it starts. There is a lot to process. Much of the running time involves Molina narrating scenes from films. The conversations between the two are integral as to how the story evolves – how Molina and Valentin see each other and the world -out of their hermetic bubble. They are locked in but also un-tethered to society and its constraints. Before the performance began, I chatted to Sylvaine Strike. Afterwards as I was grappling for terminology to describe Molina, in terms of gender, I put some questions to her. This is a dialogue rich play and words are important in how one talks about the play:

Molina’s identifying as a woman

Would it be correct to say that Molina is self-imaged as a transgender woman or a woman? I am avoiding pronouns here. The novel was published in 1976.  Sylvaine Strike: “If we were to use today’s gender terminology, Molina identifies as female, yes. I therefore will refer to Molina as she. The text is very clear about this, but stage directions completely abstain from defining any costume choices neither for Molina or Valentin. As the director I worked very closely with designer Wolf Britz on a palette that would reflect the identity of each character. In Molina’s case, in the privacy of the cell, she can wear whatever she chooses to wear and so we had a lot of freedom there. The flamboyance of this character invites femininity into the space, embracing every aspect of it, flaunting and celebrating it within the confinement of her incarceration lies her ability to freely be. She cannot openly express this part of herself out of prison as she has been imprisoned for that.”

Intimate study of human behaviour – the power of shattering prejudice

I asked you why you selected the play, now. You said because of its dialogue with “gender politics” and that the book was way ahead of its time? Sylvaine Strike: “This play is first and foremost an intimate study of human behaviour. It is a lesson in how quick we are to other those we do not understand. It is an ode to the power of shattering prejudice. It is about accepting all we hate in ourselves, and learning to love parts of ourselves we have not allowed to be seen. The conversation around gender politics that Manuel Puig penned is way ahead of its time.”

Universal – a play about human nature- anywhere and everywhere

I assumed that the setting is South Africa because the actors use their own accents but it is not set in South Africa. Sylvaine Strike: “I have not set the play in South Africa. At no point is any country mentioned in the play. In the stage directions, Manuel Puig writes: ‘A small cell in the Villa Devoto Prison in Buenos Aires’, but he takes care to never make reference to any city, or country, or accent or nationality after that, be it in the dialogue or stage directions. Kiss of the Spider Woman has been played set in American, Chinese, French, German, Israeli, Ukrainian and Russian prisons. That is precisely the point. It cannot be contained or boxed. It is the story of two people who are polar opposites, becoming entangled in ways they could never have imagined were possible .I didn’t think making actors speak with Spanish accents would be of any significance to us as South Africans. I simply went with the actor’s natural accents; how they speak every day and this would allow us to interpret the work as we wish. We are so quick to want to make sense of art as the public- for example: Where are we? ie- is that a black Xhosa male and a white Afrikaans male sharing a cell? This must be a play about race… no it is not! it is about human nature, the triumphs, the failures, the fragility and the robustness of survival. I chose this play because learning to accept the other, is crucial to our evolution as the human race.”

Reverberating in pandemic times- our need for human touch

Watching this play, it pinged for me in terms of the pandemic – and memory of hard lockdown- being in close proximity with others. It also reverberates in terms of watching people bunkered down in basements and small spaces, as Russia invades Ukraine in a senseless war and we watch people thrown together, who might not connect under ‘normal’ circumstances. Did you decide to do this play before Covid or during lockdown? Sylvaine Strike: “In this time of pandemic, we are acutely aware of our mortality, our confinement, our need to self-isolate, our need for contact, our fear of contact, our need for human touch… I chose the piece long before Covid came along. Covid simply made me understand it.”

Intimacies: Wessel Pretorius and Mbulelo Grootboom in Kiss of the Spider Woman, by Manuel Puig, directed by Sylvaine Strike, March 9-26, 2022 at the Baxter Golden Arrow Studio. Pic: Fiona McPherson.

❇ Featured image: Mbulelo Grootboom and Wessel Pretorius in Kiss of the Spider by Manuel Puig, directed by Sylvaine Strike, March 9-26, 2022 at the Baxter Golden Arrow Studio. Pic: Fiona McPherson.