Prepare to be transported to post-war Europe and to immerse yourselves in the shattered-yet-luscious society that inhabits it, for Ba-Laylah’s production of As You Desire Me will take you there. The English adaptation of Luigi Pirandello’s “Come tu vi muoi”, it is the dark and thematically experimental tale of Berlin cabaret-dancer Elma’s lost identity. On the brink of absurdist theatre, and encompassing immense philosophical questions on the nature of identity, illusion and betrayal, it is a difficult play to perform – the depth of the story and the lack of opportunities for comedy and dynamic action all contrive to create a play that has to reach its mark or fall flat. As You Desire Me is, despite such conditions, is a magnificent performance – it engages the audience’s attention consistently, keeps them in suspense (who is Elma; what is she?) and never provides a stale moment, despite the intensity of its subject.
This success is in great part due to the superb, vibrant acting of Frances Rose (playing the lead role) and Joe Robertson (playing Boffi); the other actors are varying degrees of efficient – for example, the character of Mop is thrust upon the audience in ineffective and often incomprehensible bursts of violence by Julia Hartley, but one can see that Edmund Stewart was highly successful as Silvio – but not quite all came up to the level of intensity demanded by such a play. The ideas behind the play are not underscored (or alternatively, obscured) by any use of abstract acting or experimental theatrical techniques; it is up to the actors to bring out their characters forcefully and effectively to create the thematic atmosphere of the play.
Frances Rose slips seamlessly and seemingly effortlessly from the crude cabaret-dancer/prostitute Elma to the dignified but utterly bewildered Lucia, punctuating both roles with the required amounts of dynamism and depth. Joe Robertson, contrastingly, provides a stolid presence in the earlier Berlin scenes, which have a tendency perhaps to be at times too overwhelmingly violent, too monotonously coarse – the character of Boffi provides a reliable uniformity of temperament and emotion, and is convincingly portrayed.
Another element of the play that renders the performance reliably engaging is the detail which the director, Tara Isabella Burton, has worked into the play – both in terms of the set and the scenes. The set is comfortably picturesque, Bohemian and atmospheric – it has the immediate effect of setting the scene for the audience, and keeping them in that state of mind. This is maintained throughout the play, and even the set changes do not bore; the audience is kept satiated with entertaining European ditties reminiscent of cabarets and cafés. Likewise, the focus of the play itself is so verbal, and so lacking in required physicality, that there is the perpetual danger of scenes being too inert – but Burton ensures that no line is delivered in a state of stasis unless it is required for emphasis. The scenes are full and robust, with little actions and movements to create the sense of flux and energy on stage.
As mentioned previously, the performance is a conventional outplaying of the text, relying on the story (effectively relayed) and the characters (effectively portrayed). It does not attempt to invoke the questions of identity or illusion with any stunning displays of theatrical abstraction. It adheres to and works around the text, supplementing the story by only creating a distinctive atmosphere through staging. In this respect, perhaps, it falls a bit short: the potential of the story and Pirandello’s text is such that it could have been greater conceptualized, presented to the audience with the forcefulness of unconventional theatre, rather than with the forcefulness of characters relentlessly shouting and swearing at each other.
Nevertheless, the play escapes being stale and monotonous – it is convincing enough to transport one back to a certain time and place, and does so even while retaining the audience’s attention through. Overall, a thoroughly good performance – if you like engaging, atmospheric theatre and a good story with interesting characters, then this is definitely a play to watch.