Naked at the Almeida Theatre

Note: Naked will transfer to the Playhouse Theatre on 23 April 1998 for a five and a half week season. The cast remains the same.

Luigi Pirandello is the most unfashionable of playwrights. Half a century or so ago, he held sway as the acceptable face of modern drama; now, half-forgotten, the truly fashionable Almeida brings the ultra-fashionable Juliette Binoche to Islington to attempt one of his least known plays, Naked , in a new production from the Almeida's co-director, Jonathan Kent.

The production is played out against a set of warm Mediterranean hues, accompanied by Jonathan Dove's jaunty Rota-esqe fairground music, which emphasises the tragedy that unfolds. A young woman, Emilia (Binoche), is being sheltered by an elderly novelist, Ludovico Nota (Oliver Ford Davies). The novelist, hoping that her story will provide inspiration, finds his half-hearted advances rejected. Bit by bit her story is revealed. She has attempted suicide after a child has died in her care; although as the play progresses more and more of the tale is stripped away. A journalist hunts her down hoping for an exclusive; a young naval lieutenant who has broken off his engagement because of her seeks her out; and the father of the child, a consul, finally confronts her.

If the play is ultimately unsatisfying, it is because there is no real development of the male characters. Each of the men sees in Emilia exactly what he wants to see, but all of them are too two-dimensional to contribute to the drama.

As Emilia, Binoche does have the chance to reveal what it is that so engages the men who have chanced into her life. It's not the fault of her strangely accented English that she doesn't succeed (her inflections are often strange but these peculiarities of speech only serve to emphasise her vulnerability), but the fact that her range seems to fluctuate only between fey helplessness and full-throated rage, with no shades in between. Her final speech, however, all white-faced pain and staring eyed despair, is an exceptionally powerful piece of theatre.

Ford Davies and Kevin McNally as the novelist and the consul respectively bring some subtlety to rather thankless parts. And Anita Reeves also shines as the novelist's landlady who moves from scandalised Roman housewife to solicitous nurse.

Naked runs at the Almeida until 28 March 1998.

Maxwell Cooter, February 1998