Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s all-female story about power, desire and obsession in the fashion world is best known from his own highly wrought 1972 film version. Here in a new contemporary translation by David Tushingham, this claustrophobic chamber piece seems a curious choice for Yvonne McDevitt’s site-specific production, which is staged not in the normal auditorium at Southwark Playhouse but next door in the cavernous spaces of the railway arches below London Bridge Station. The show – literally and metaphorically – leaves one cold.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant revolves around the eponymous fashion designer (played by Sasha Behar) whose public success contrasts with the miserable failure of her private life. Having just left her second husband, she falls in love with young model Karen (Naomi Taylor), who becomes the muse for her new range for a top fashion label. Though celebrated in the media, Petra enters an alcohol-fuelled downward spiral as the manipulative Karen exploits her adoration while sleeping with men.
Petra’s self-destructive, sado-masochistic relationship with Karen also impacts on those around her, as she alienates friend and confidante Sidonie (Mabel Aitken), her mixed-up adolescent daughter Gabriele (Clara Perez Adamson) and her sympathetic but helpless mother Valerie (Deirdra Morris). The only person who stays with her is her slavish mute assistant Marlene (Anna Egseth), who knows all about suffering for unrequited love.
Fassbinder’s fascinating examination of dominance and submission is ill-served in McDevitt’s misconceived, strangely sexless production, where the shifting power dynamics fail to convince and there is no real sense of desperation or danger underneath the gloss. Any sense of intimacy is destroyed by the acoustic problems of trains thundering overhead and speech echoing off brick walls, while in the murky light it’s not always possible to see actors’ facial expressions. The half-hearted bohemianism of the costume and set designs by Kimie Nakano and Matt Deely and the use of club/cabaret music don’t help to take the show beyond kitsch.
The international cast struggle to make an impact in this distancing, self-conscious staging, where the actors also manipulate arc-lights and create sound effects. Behar does reasonably well in the role of the designer diva on the slide, striking the right poses but without really suggesting inner turmoil, so that she comes across more as a drama queen than a victim of the heart. She’s not helped by Taylor’s irritatingly vacant performance, a femme fatale exuding as much allure as a chav. Egseth, though, speaks volumes with her unhappy silent devotion to her mistress and murderous looks towards her rivals.
However, if you want to see the real deal, go get the Fassbinder movie on DVD!