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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Donmar Warehouse, London

By Michael Coveney

  Rupert Evans (Valentine) and Will Keen (Molina)

More than twenty years after Simon Callow and Mark Rylance nearly burst out of the tiny Bush Theatre as Manuel Puig's steamy cell-mates in a Buenos Aires prison, a Donmar revival with Will Keen (replacing Iain Glen, who dropped out before rehearsals began) and Rupert Evans is a lot more restrained, a lot less heated.

The piece still retains a classic aura in its study of two social outcasts - one an obsessive movie fan who has been sent down for corrupting minors, the other a Che Guavera-style Marxist revolutionary who has been tortured by the police - and the story has a great twist as it sidles into a surveillance drama.

The trouble is that we know the set up at the end of the first act as Molina, a symbolic recreation of his own adored panther woman in the trashy movie he recounts in episodes to the battered Valentin, prowls the cage with a sinister intent. And although Rupert Evans's Valentin convinces us that he might be interested in the movie details (a helpful programme note by film critic David Thompson fills in the background to RKO's 1942 low budget Cat People), he seems less plausible as a dangerous radical.

Donmar supremo Michael Grandage has already evoked Argentina in the 1970s in his recent superb revival of Evita, but the grim reality of that era of state terrorism and "disappearances" following the death of Juan Peron in 1974 is much more central to Puig's play. Oddly, though, director Charlotte Westenra has cut the final "voice-over" speech in which Molina is revealed not to have betrayed Valentin and to have then been killed himself by the authorities.

That information makes the play much more of a poignant love story, though Charlotte Westenra insists that translator Allan Burns is happy with the excision. Hector Babenco's 1985 movie version (starring William Hurt - who won an Oscar as Valentin - and Raul Julia hinted at the sort of expansion of the narrative taken to a gloriously illogical conclusion in the Hal Prince production of Kander and Ebb's musical (libretto by Terrence McNally), seen at the Shaftesbury in 1992.

Will Keen's shaven-headed Molina is a low-key, deeply impressive assemblage of a performance, looks and flicks all under control, movement sinewy and graceful. I have read one or two complaints that he is not enough of a "queen." Well, Simon Callow ticked that box, and then some, whereas Keen scores in the subtlety of his underplaying. The scenes in which he cleans up Valentin's soiled bedclothes (Valentin is being slowly poisoned by the prison food) and submits to his cell mate's unbidden sexual overtures, are executed with overwhelming compassion and dignity.

The design team of Ben Stones(set), Hartley T A Kemp (lights) and John Leonard (sound) creates a secretive cell of transparent walls, fleetingly glimpsed prison personnel and strange noises in the night, well up to usual Donmar standards. The play has not lost its point or its purpose, but the sting has been drawn, and - horribly blasé to say this, I know - but we now learn nothing all that new.


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