Those in the business of transposing film to the stage have got more adventurous as well as busier of late. After One Flew Over the Cuckooís Nest, The Graduate and other adaptations of mainstream movies came Festen, and that has been followed by Ma Vie en Rose and, now, Pedro Almodůvarís wonderfully weird Todo Sobre Mi Madre, with Diana Rigg as a Spanish diva. What next, a theatrical retrospective of Ingmar Bergman, starting with Kevin Spacey as the chess-playing knight in The Seventh Seal?
Well, that might work even better than Samuel Adamsonís adaptation of Mi Madre, which canít be and isnít a wholly satisfactory substitute for the original film. Yet you soon overlook such minor irritants as the bustling scene shifters or the falling curtain that allows them to whizz about the furniture while gratuitous monologues occur at the front of the stage. And, yes, youíre absorbed in Tom Cairnsís production, which sticks to the basic story, adding little of importance except the intermittent appearance of the eager, watchful ghost of the young man whose death starts the proceedings.
Heís Esteban, who celebrates his 17th birthday by going to see Riggís Huma Rojo play poor, obsessed Blanche in a revival of Tennessee Williamsís A Streetcar Named Desire and, rushing after her for her autograph, is killed by a car. The effect on his mother Manuela, a nurse in a Madrid hospitalís transplant unit, is devastating and constructive. Lesley Manville, who plays her, brings a desperate intensity to her grief, but turns out also to have the quiet, unshowy qualities needed to give us whatís wanted: a moving portrait of a woman who unsentimentally exudes generosity, tolerance and sheer human warmth.
Theyíre also qualities displayed by Almodůvar and Adamson as they chronicle Manuelaís return to Barcelona, where she hopes to encounter the father whose identity she never dared reveal to her son. Why not? Well, heís a full-time transvestite and part-time thief called Lola and, it seems, is currently on the run. But Manvilleís Manuela finds many others to occupy her: Mark Gatissís splendidly wry, sly, self-mocking Agrado, a whore as well as a transvestite; Joanne Froggatt as the conscientious, innocent nun who has been impregnated and infected with the Aids virus by the same Lola; Eleanor Bron as the nunís confused mother; Riggís imperiously charismatic Huma, a lesbian wearily devoted to a heroin-shooting fellow-actress.
Itís hard to imagine a richer film or, letís concede, play.
Everything adds to the moral and emotional mix: from those symbolic organ transplants to A Streetcar Named Desire, a play in which Manuela finds herself performing Blancheís sister, who has abandoned the genteel life for a sexy man and a city almost as louche as Barcelona. And thatís what Tom Cairnsís production ends up celebrating: the complexities of modern urban life, the contradictions of sexuality and gender, the painful intricacies of desire.
But itís also celebrating the strength, resilience and compassion of its protagonist. Manuela tried to lead the conventional life in Madrid, hiding the truth of her past from her son and, you feel, from herself. By her own admission, she lost her capacity for emotion with the boyís death. To see the unpretentiously excellent Manville rediscovering both her history and her heart is invigorating ó yes, even on the stage.