Article excerpt

Pirandello's Naked (1922) is a close relative - an interesting but inferior first cousin - to Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921). It could almost be renamed Six Characters Trying to Lose an Author. Pirandello plays with the idea that we are irresponsible authors of our lives and fatally in love with fiction. We tell lies because facts are of no interest. As one of the characters observes: "Facts are merely what we know already; they are all that remains when the spirit has died."

Nicholas Wright's new version of Naked is a tonic: every line invigorates, and Jonathan Kent, who directs the play at the Almeida, manages to stay splendidly in control of every strand of this absurd, mutinous, despairing story.

It was an inspired idea to cast Juliette Binoche as the lead. Her little-girl-lost beauty is exactly right. For Ersilia is lost inside her own story like a helpless hand inside a garish, bloodstained glove. Scandal (an affair with one man, pursuit by another, the death of a child) dresses her but cannot conceal her naked self. There is an abyss between words and flesh, a sense that the stories she and other people tell are - even when they think they are telling the truth - fraudulent or incidental. Binoche first appears in a crushed grey jacket and a nauseous asparagus-green dress. She carries a flat little bag and under her cloche hat she has the look of a nervous hunted animal: quarry for the rest of the cast.

Binoche looks the part but it is hard to judge her acting because her beguiling English has a music of its own, often ironed to accentless smoothness, occasionally creasing back into French. Its nuances are neither dependable nor easy to read. But when she says "I have never been anyone" it is clear, at the very least, that she knows how to play a delicate, precise cipher to perfection.

The design is absorbing: we are in a study with walls the colour of old blood - a brown study in every sense (even designed, I note, by a Paul Brown). The floor tilts backwards, rendering everyone a little more helpless than they were already, and books lie on the floor in autumnal drifts. Through a door opening at the back of the stage, we see a bedroom with wallpaper that keeps changing pattern silently, from neat regiments of flowers to close-up blowsy roses to darker patterns. It is an intelligent visual conceit to accompany Pirandello's sense of the volatility of the exterior life. Jonathan Dove's music composed for the production also enhances it greatly. It has a poignant, fairground gaiety that seems to insist there is nothing, no matter how sad, that will not eventually yield to absurdity.

Oliver Ford-Davies is superb as the writer Ludovico Nota. He looks as though he has had a nasty fright. His grey hair sticks out curiously and his eyes bulge, making him look like a cross koala bear. A purple rose trembles in his indignant hand and he talks through his nose, the nasal tone inescapably suggesting his disappointment with his life, as though he had lost the will to speak through his mouth. Ludovico's character dominates the play: it is disturbing that he cares for Ersilia for his own sake only; his vanity is relentless, his detachment chronic.

The landlady Onoria (Anita Reeves), in rattling jet with a cupid's-bow mouth, also specialises in suspect kindness. She is interested in Ersilia only when her story appears in all the newspapers. Ludovico describes her as a toad; she is more like a monstrous cat. As Franco Laspiga, Ben Daniels is wonderful, showing the inherent foolishness of ardour, rushing to woo Ersilia and as swiftly shunning her when he hears the news. Her married lover, Alfredo, is also impressively played by David Sibley. He brings rage and guilt into the artificial atmosphere of the room like fresh air.

Ersilia's third persecutor is the aptly named Grotti (Kevin McNally, whose performance as a parasitical hack is intensely enjoyable). He is as pale as a louse who has been living under a brick. …