A kill-or-cure remedy for passion

THEATRE Portrait of a Woman / Orange Tree, London Temporary Girl / Cockpit, London
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The Independent Culture
M ichel Vinaver's Portrait of a Woman is certainly no portrait of a lady: the question, though, is whether the person it depicts is a cold-blooded murderess, or her own worst victim, or neither, or both.

Adapted from a real-life case, the play offers a deliberately fragmented take on the 1953 trial in Paris of a medical student, Sophie Auzanneau. She had shot and killed Xavier Bergeret (Simon Day), a fellow student and former lover who'd once been drawn to the point of proposing marriage by her capriciousness and vulnerability, a blend which Lucy Tregear's fine performance communicates in all its unsettled and unsettling allure. After driving him into the arms of a more conventional fiance, and then into hiding, Sophie eventually tracked him down and simplified matters with a gun.

With its lightning oscillations between the present-tense drama of the trial and a blizzard of unchronological flashbacks to Sophie's chequered and disturbed past, the play is less a portrait than a Cubist jigsaw and the face that finally emerges is still wearing an enigmatic expression. The technique is in many ways similar to that employed by Phyllis Nagy in Butterfly Kiss, which focused on a young lesbian matricide. Except that in that play, the case had not yet reached trial and Nagy steered your interest so far away from the projected verdict that it's a moot point how many people even noticed that the play chose to leave that information undivulged.

By contrast, Vinaver sets his play smack in the courtroom and, because of the narrative format, this august seat of "justice" has to share floorspace with the re-enacted past. The incongruities this occasions help to make Vinaver's point in visual terms: that the narrowness of legal discourse is a mesh incapable of capturing Sophie's elusive complexity.

Moreover, by juxtaposing on stage the various social networks in which Sophie moved, each with their rival ways of defining her, the play makes you see why she felt incoherent and was forever engaged in a game of hide and seek with her positive instincts.

The scope for confusion with a work like this is obviously considerable but Sam Walters' well acted in the round production orchestrates the tricky proceedings with great clarity, offering clues but no final solution to Sophie's condition.

From a Cubist jigsaw of a woman to a string of female caricatures in Temporary Girl, Lisa Kotin's satiric sketches of New York office life. Kotin has been dubbed the new wave's answer to Lucille Ball, but there are hints of Dame Edna in some of the crackly film footage with which the evening is interspersed. Kotin plays all the women from Pearl (an old Luddite secretary) to Jill Hardwood (an ambitious, hard as nails corporate head). In one of the best sequences, Jill discovers she's pregnant when the foetus rings her up and balls her out in just the condescending peremptory manner she uses on her temps. Milk? "I need it yesterday," shouts baby- to-be. Not all the ideas (like showing that avoiding a routine can become a grinding routine) are exactly fresh, though, and Kotin's material feels overstretched to fill the two-hour running time.

n `Portrait of a Woman' (081-940 3633) to 18 Mar

n `Temporary Girl' (071-402 5081) to 18 Mar