The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Southwark Playhouse, London

Love in a cold climate
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The Independent Culture

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the German film-maker, playwright, actor and sexual agent provocateur, is one of those artists who add up to a good deal more than the sum of their parts. To put it another way, I find that I love the idea of him rather more than I like most of the individual works. Or, to put it another way still, I'd rather go on a Fassbinder binge (as I have on a couple of occasions) than pick over one item from the oeuvre.

Before he died aged 37 in 1982 (of a lethal mix of cocaine and sleeping pills) he was a Happening whose frenetic activities gain in significance when you consider their intricate autobiographical connections.

Take The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, the play version of which is now revived by Yvonne McDevitt and her international Oslo Group in an environmentally compelling production for Southwark Playhouse. It locates the eponymous fashion designer's emotional hothouse of an apartment under the arches of the vaults near London Bridge, giving this home the atmosphere of a roomy dungeon.

Rendered here in an acerbic translation by David Tushingham, Fassbinder's theatrical drama which the author later turned into a famously statuesque (or, to some taste, torpid) movie traces the warping effect of possessive love across three generations of women.

Petra von Kant is an arrogant, rich-bitch fashion designer (the defensiveness of whose diva-dom is strikingly captured by Sasha Behar). She accepts, without thought or gratitude, the dogged devotion of Marlene (Anna Egseth), her mute secretary-cum-maid. But then she gets a taste of her own medicine when she falls catastrophically in love with an on-the-make model Karin, all tantalisingly transparent calculation in Naomi Taylor's performance.

The new relationship mockingly mirrors the sado-masochism of the master-servant bond, and its collateral damage shows up in the shape of Petra's immature daughter (Clara Perez) and her refined mother (Deirdra Morris, excellent), whose reaction to lesbianism is only a fraction more comprehending than Queen Victoria's.

Fassbinder's take on this story of a slave-owner dragged through the mill by unequal love is a tricky one. Selling the artifice for rather more than it's worth, McDevitt's production heightens a sense of the play's mannered fluctuations between pseudo-operatic emotionalism and Brechtian distance. Even more so than in the film, these women are wearing not just wigs but Wigs (you half expect them to have names like the one Barbara Castle sometimes wore and affectionately dubbed Lucy).

The characters train the arc lights on one another in DIY fashion. Air kisses are given at 20 paces to squelchy sound effects. The mother hilariously arrives and delivers a yowling Japanese harangue.

There are some adroitly handled sequences, such as the cat-and-mouse game in which Karin hoists Petra by her own petard of demanding honesty, where the actors create the impression that misty quote-marks are forming and dissolving round the action. Bursts of Blondie, Maria Callas and Michael Jackson are overtly summoned through a computer.

For all that it continues up the arches for about the same length as the main acting area, the design by Kimie Nakano and Matt Deely has a weird resemblance to a film set. And I wondered if the best way of releasing the material's power would be to come clean about its autobiographical overlap with Fassbinder's own obsessive desire for the black Bavarian actor Gunther Kaufman, with whom he made the bizarre bisexual western, Whity. A theatre version of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant that gave the play a film-set frame would open up the ways in which the women here perform drag act versions of womanhood.

I was left with two reflections: first, that despite the cutting-down-to-size of the alienation effects, the play aggrandises the passion at its centre; and second, I wish some inventive producer could arrange an out-of-time collaboration between Fassbinder and another gay auteur, Pedro Almodovar.

To 5 January (0870 060 1761)