Review: As You Desire Me, Playhouse Theatre

A study of memory and identity and how truth is often just relative, Luigi Pirandello’s As You Desire Me is one of his lesser performed works, but presented in a new adaptation by Hugh Whitemore and directed by Jonathan Kent, it has quite the casting coup with both Kristin Scott Thomas and Bob Hoskins as part of the company.

We first meet Scott Thomas as Elma, a singer in a sleazy 1930s Berlin night-club and living in a sado-masochistic relationship with a man Salter and his lesbian daughter Mop who is also attracted to her. A man appears and tells her that she is, in fact Lucia, the wife of an Italian aristocrat. She was the victim of an appalling assault during the First World War and, as a result, lost her memory. But when she goes to Italy to pursue this dream new life, she finds unexpected problems and disappointments.

Scott Thomas is just compelling as all the facets she is asked to play here, the Dietrich-like chanteuse and the casually elegant Italian lady-who-lunches, and she has to work hard: onstage for maybe 80% of the time and constantly aware of having to play the role that best pleases those around her. She is aided by some sumptuous design work taking us from a dark Berlin cabaret bar to a light-filled Italian villa with a cleverly enhanced large projection of Scott Thomas’ face facing us during the scene changes, constantly reminding us we really don’t know for sure who she is.

Margaret Tyzack and John Carlisle almost run away with the show as relatives clinging onto happy memories; Bob Hoskins was disappointingly average, playing the same character one would expect him to as ever, but there was good work from Stephanie Jacob, Finbar Lynch and Richard Lintern as Bruno, the abandoned husband of Lucia.

Packing all of this into less than 90 minutes is quite some achievement as it never feels hurried and in simply suggesting the myriad other possibilities to the reality on stage, gets to the true meaning of what Pirandello is saying and the ambiguity of the ending feels just right. And of course, it is a wonderful (rare) opportunity to see the fine talents of Scott Thomas live on the stage so I would definitely recommend this one.

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