With news that Uganda recently proposed to make homosexuality punishable by death, British director Timothy Harris says the timing was right for a new staging of Argentine author Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel Kiss of the Spider Woman.
Most will remember the 1985 film version by Héctor Babenco, which not only won William Hurt the Academy Award for best actor, but also helped to make the careers of costars Raul Julia and Sonia Braga.
The timing may be right, but there are other aspects of the story that are proving harder for expatriate group Black Stripe Theatre to translate from the political turmoil of ’70s Latin America. The play concerns two Argentine prisoners—one a leftist revolutionary and the other a gay man imprisoned for underage sex—who become lovers.
“When I was young, I was strongly left wing and it was the time of Che Guevara, so I can understand the character of the Marxist intellectual,” explains Harris. “But for the generations after mine, it’s more difficult to understand that strong political sense.”
Nonetheless, it was a challenge that actors Kevin Hand, who plays the gay man Luis Molina, and Chris Parham, who plays the political prisoner Valentin Arregui, wanted to take on. Hand is a veteran of theater and television in the UK, while Parham most recently appeared in the Tokyo production of Anjin San, English Samurai.
“It was really Kevin’s idea, and I thought it would be interesting,” Harris says. “[The play] is of course well-known because of the film, which frankly I’m not awfully fond of, but I’ve seen the play done in Japanese, and it impressed me very much. I thought it was timely considering what’s happening in Uganda, and this huge debate about homosexuality. It’s about the ambiguity of being human and how things aren’t as fixed as we believe.”
The staging, says Harris, will follow the original.
“I’ve got no love of this director’s ‘dog syndrome’—like a dog walking down an avenue of trees and lifting his leg to leave his mark on each one. I think the task of the director is to listen to the play and what the writer is trying to do and to explore that. It’s the exploration that’s important, not approaching it with abstract external ideas and then trying to fit the play to the template.”
A veteran of the theater with 37 years in Japan, Harris has a resume that includes the country’s first-ever staging of Shakespeare’s Edward III and appearances on NHK as both Douglas MacArthur and Commodore Perry. He chuckles that he has two main lines of work as an actor: “American national heroes for TV or nasty old men for Black Stripe Theatre’s Pinter plays. I do not like to think about which I most resemble.”
As a friend of Black Stripe founder and producer Walter Roberts, Harris previously worked on local productions of The Homecoming and The Hothouse. He’s also well familiar with the travails of the expatriate theater scene.
“Some of the more interesting productions have come out of these small groups, but then often they disappear, because they are started by some sort of strong person who then leaves. And also, there is no financial support. Often we’re using—and losing—our own money to put these on.”
Kiss of the Spider Woman
Manuel Puig’s play about the relationship between two cellmates in Buenos Aires, performed in English by the Black Stripe Theater company. Apr 16-18, various times, ¥2,000 (students)/¥2,500 (adv)/¥3,000 (door). Iwato Theatre, Iidabashi. Tel: Walter Roberts 03-3642-8157.