PICTURES: Fiona McPherson
Returning to the theatre after such barren and isolated times with Kiss of the Spider Woman ̶ to spark conversation is a great gift, Sylvaine Strike tells DIANE DE BEER. It has been a troubled ride for the proposed run of this play which was cancelled on the eve of their opening in June 2021 when the 3rd wave of Covid hit. But now they’re ready to go with a run at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre until March 26:
“It felt so terribly hard to abandon the work when we were closed down,” says director Sylvaine Strike.
In full-blown artist mode she expands: “It felt deadly. Where does one put all the adrenalin, all the emotive impulses so necessary to tell this story in all its noble truth? My heart broke for my actors who were about to fly. Hibernation of the artistic soul has been one of the most challenging realities we have had to face as live performers,” she explains.
But now, just short of a year, they’re back again to hopefully complete a run. Kiss of the Spider Woman is a story she has always wanted to tell. “It is first and foremost, an inmate and delicate study of human behaviour. It is a testimony to our ability to escape our reality through the imagination, a triumph in the battle to defeat prejudice; it is a poem about learning to love all that one hates about oneself, all that one fears in the other; it is about accepting difference through tenderness.”
Embracing what is too often labelled as other has become crucial, urgent, she argues and she simply loved the humanity of the work.
Ironically she had been booked to direct Kiss at the Baxter in mid-2019, long before Covid became a reality. “I am often asked if I chose this piece because of the pandemic since it speaks of confinement, seeking escape though retelling of stories from the silver screen (think of what Netflix meant to us all during this confinement!) but ultimately it is also a play about isolation from society.
“It is in fact Covid that helped me understand this piece on a cellular level, our human need for contact, for connection, for escapism, for understanding.”
Discussing her casting, she notes that our immediate assumption as South Africans, when we see a black Xhosa male (Mbulelo Grootboom) and white Afrikaans male (Wessel Pretorius) sharing a prison cell, is likely that this story will be about racial tension.
So to her mind, it seemed crucial to shatter this preconception and challenge viewers to engage with the piece on a very different level.
“As humans we are so quick to other in so many ways. Wessel and Mbulelo are both remarkably in touch with who they are as men, embracing both the positive and negative aspects of their masculine and feminine halves, and highlighting the necessity for Valentin and Molina’s story to be shared with all audiences, guarding in turn against prejudice, sexual preference or political ideology.
“Ultimately, this story is about survival, betrayal, regret and our need for connection. Whatever preconception audiences may have will gently be turned on its head,” she predicts.
“The playwright Manuel Puig had staggering courage for his time. I hope that we too have shown courage in this rendition, exactly 50 years after it was penned, it is very much a classic of gay literature ̶ but we hope to contribute to it being seen as a great classic ̶ eternally relevant to human nature.”
Design has always played a huge role in her productions and collaborating with Wolf Britz was a real treat.
“We both agreed that we needed to set it somewhere neutral, that it could be a prison cell anywhere as the location of Buenos Aires Argentina is never referred to by the characters. This enabled us to build on the theme of imprisonment as a metaphor of the mind, while also being a very literal prison.
“We researched Argentinian prisons, and Wolf was inspired to thread colours, textures and the feel of the them into the fabric of the piece. I really wanted to get a sense of the cell being one of many, positioned above a cell and below another, with only wrought iron grids separating them. I wanted the characters to be lit from below and above too, through these grids,” she explains.
As with all her work, she wanted the actors to be rehearsing on the set – a very small restricted square, with an oppressively low ceiling above it- from as early as possible in the process. She knew that by the time they had mastered their space it would feel huge. And that is what happened.
She details thus: “Molina sets up home, plays housewife, remembers movies; Valentin reads, studies Marx, pines for his girlfriend while their lives intersect and become entangled on levels they never dreamed were possible.”
Lighting design also took on huge significance. “Light plays a huge part in confined spaces like prisons,” she notes. “Time is indicated through natural and synthetic light. Mannie Manim has evoked both perfectly with his wizardry,” she says.
In conclusion she stresses that gender politics are a necessary conversation in our times, more so than ever in societies that are seeking to be inclusive and illuminated.
“Returning to the theatre after such barren and isolated times with Kiss to spark conversation is a great gift, I believe. We cannot wait to share the sacred ritual of the collective experience with our audiences once again. This is our place of worship. It is here that it all makes sense.”
And as if this Kiss season isn’t enough, she will also be at The Baxter together with Andrew Buckland in the stage version of Ferine and Ferase titled Firefly from March 24 until April .
The play runs nightly from Mondays to Saturdays starting at 7.30pm; with matinées on Saturdays at 2.30pm. Bookings at Webticket.
Those attending this year’s Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK) from 29 March to 3 April, will also have the opportunity to catch the play there.