As You Desire Me, Playhouse, London

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The Independent Culture

Pirandello's heroine is, in fact, a kind of radically elusive anti-character, referred to by the author as L'Ignota or the Unknown Woman. She perhaps contained aspects of both his mentally unstable wife and of his actress-mistress for whom he wrote the part. There's a nice added paradox here too, since half the audience has probably turned up at the Playhouse because L'Ignota is being embodied by the extremely well-known yet remote star, Kristin Scott Thomas.

In turn, within the play, virtually everyone claims they're intimately acquainted with her, only they can't agree on her name. With a touch of Wedekind's Lulu and of the returning Martin Guerre, we first encounter her in decadent Berlin where she's a raunchily boho, nihilistically despairing nightclub singer. Nicknamed Elma (which means "water") by the leering gents who pursue her, she visibly wishes to escape the sleazy domestic triangle in which she's trapped with Bob Hoskins' jealous Salter and his equally obsessed daughter (Hannah Young). Then an apparent stranger - Finbar Lynch looking like the devil in shades - starts following her through the streets, shouting out "Lucia". He says that she is his friend Pieri's long-lost and still-idolised wife and the owner of a grand Italian villa. We also gather L'Ignota may have no recall of her past due to some wartime trauma, but we can never be wholly sure about that. Persuaded that she could be - or become - this Lucia, she goes to start a new purer life with Pieri (Richard Lintern).

Inevitably though, everyone has nagging, suppressed doubts about who she is and Salter digs up an alternative Lucia - an unlovely psychiatric patient - who, he insists, is actually her.

Hugh Whitemore's new English version is inconspicuously excellent and Kent's stylish production is scintillating, with Otto Dix-style dark-poisoned elegance in Berlin, then, in Italy, a light and spacious yet decaying ballroom. It must be said Hoskins is a mite disappointing, shouting and snarling without packing a punch. Some other talented actors have thanklessly underdeveloped roles, including Lynch and Andrew Woodall as Lucia's rich brother-in-law - though he manages to be compulsive viewing, just lounging in a corner, stubbing out cigarettes. The evening could, perhaps, be more satirical here and there, and it is not all that moving either. However, it is quietly unsettling and bleak about lost love and hope, as well as being constantly intriguing, philosophically and dramatically. Most importantly, Scott Thomas (reportedly suffering a real-life marital crisis) is superb.

She is mesmerising in her opening scene, spotlit in a snaky gauze dress, singing a smoky number about sex appeal, with flashes of rasping coarseness in her otherwise posh voice. Then in Italy, she seems more girlish and tender but keeps switching between her split personalities. Catch her if you can.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

To 22 January, 0870 060 6631

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