Theatre: Stirred to perfection

Naked Almeida, London
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Indy Lifestyle Online
As Chichester discovered to its cost last year, luring film stars onto the stage is no guarantee of box office success, let alone artistic quality. Kathleen Turner, Julie Christie, and Lesley Caron were wheeled in and wheeled out again, making an underwhelming impression in between. Piercing through the prejudices of British theatre goers is perhaps hardest for French screen actors. Look at the critical reception accorded poor Isabelle Huppert when she appeared at the National in Schiller's Mary Stuart; one reviewer spent an inordinate proportion of his column taking the piss out of the fact that, given her Gallic intonation, the word "peace", used rather a lot in the play, kept coming out as that handy slang synonym for urine.

So it is all the more delightful to report that Juliette Binoche is unforgettably stirring as she takes to the stage (in what is only her second theatrical role) in Naked, the Pirandello play now mounted in a quite masterly production by Jonathan Kent at the Almeida. Off camera, she is every bit as lovely as on, in that exquisitely carved, just-taken-out-of-tissue-paper fragility which masks a nervy tensile strength. Some stars can look a little low- wattage in the flesh but her bone china pallor catches Mark Henderson's beautiful changing light in a way that suggests she is the light source itself.

If, on screen, Binoche has sometimes seemed to be to passivity what Sharon Stone is to nudity, here the central role requires and gets from her a raw, wrenched, shakily assertive emotionalism. Pirandello's drama is, characteristically, founded on a symbiotic tension between metaphysical comic playfulness and profound tragic passion; it's like watching molten lava flow into the tricksy conceptual intricacies of a maze. Focusing on a woman fighting to find out who, if anything, she is as she copes with four men who are each trying to foist their version of her identity on her, it's a play where a lack of theatre experience can actually work in favour of the leading actress. Those moments are especially touching here when you can't quite work out if the slightly clumsy rhetorical demonstrativeness is a function of the heroine or of Binoche. For split seconds, her haunted, febrile, gesticulating fervour gives you the hallucinatory feeling that you are watching a classic of the silent screen. It makes poetic sense; a woman struggling to find an identity played by a woman courageously struggling to find a stage technique.

Kent's production is wonderfully well-judged, creating its own self-consistent world - from the curdled, faintly satanic fairground music that ushers in scenes, to a set (by Paul Brown) where the large central window and the distressed terracotta coloured walls of a flaking momumental flat in Rome respond to the emotion of the moment by changing aspect chameleon- like. With its references to a media "silly season" and its explicitness ("you cunt, you dim little cunt" is the unceremonious way Binoche is addressed by one of the men), Nicholas Wright's new translation heightens the shocking undatedness of this 1922 play. It would be easy to make the heroine, Ersilia Drei, sound like an unambiguous victim-figure. She's plastered all over the newspapers because (faint shakes of Louise Woodward) the child of a consul fell to its death while in her custody. Her young naval lieutenant lover (Ben Daniels) has left her; she's had to stoop to prostitution and she's survived a suicide attempt. Not a happy bunny - and now she's taken refuge in the flat of a middle-aged novelist whose forlorn sexual hopes and selfish egghead desire to tease out and exploit her mystery in fiction are brilliantly brought out in Oliver Ford Davies's comic brooding-bear of a performance.

As the play unfolds like some philosophical detective piece, what Binoche and the production expertly communicate, however, is the paradox that Ersilia - with her distraught need to claw away at the masks the men want to project onto her and to find, through emotional striptease, the final mask - is, in fact, the strongest person on stage. There's danger, at times almost a retaliatory ugliness in her. And Binoche lets you see the draining toll of her effort to remain mettlesome and resistant.

But if the men concoct untruths for tactical purposes, she also tells lies in the quest for a higher authenticity and the production does not disguise the fact that this strategy leaves ruin in its wake. One of the most devastating moments in the evening is when Kevin McNally's excellent Consul looks at his hands and wipes them in disgust on his suit. Contact with her has laid bare his soul and he despises the look of it. If Binoche's Ersilia achieves a miraculously radiant apotheosis in suicide, the lights have gone out for most of the other characters. A powerful play in an unmissable production.

To 28 March. Box office 0171-359 4404