If you’re going to have a face stare the audience down, who better than Kristin Scott Thomas, the radiant talent whose visage appears on the frontcloth for “As You Desire Me”? Director Jonathan Kent returns to those porcelain-smooth features writ tantalizingly large in the course of an evening that doesn’t match its star’s hypnotic allure. But even when the caprice that is Pirandello’s play is wearing thin, its central player exerts her own singular wonder. Whether magnified on celluloid or in more human form center-stage, Scott Thomas has the kind of presence ordinary mortals just don’t possess.
It’s scant surprise, actually, that Pirandello’s extended conceit (show runs barely 85 minutes) became a 1930s film starring Greta Garbo, whose iconic beauty finds a modern-day inheritor of sorts in this production’s star. Following her mesmeric London stage debut two seasons ago in “Three Sisters,” Scott Thomas once again shows she can hold an audience through sheer force of character. All she needs now is greater vocal heft to make the perf complete. (Faced with a more speech-heavy role than Chekhov’s Masha, thesp tends to swallow her lines.)
“As You Desire Me” needs all the stardust Scott Thomas brings to an occasion that talks up to a West End audience without really grabbing them. Although ravishingly designed (sets are by regular Kent collaborator Paul Brown), the play at base isn’t much more than a protracted meditation on themes of identity and truth-telling more rewardingly trawled by this writer elsewhere. London’s last commercial foray into Pirandello, “Absolutely! (perhaps),” was in fact a more challenging play, though not nearly as well presented.
Kent made something of a house specialty of Pirandello during his dozen or so years co-running the Almeida. His tenure there included the London stage debut of Juliette Binoche in “Naked” as well as a Pirandello rarity, “The Rules of the Game,” which remains one of the helmer’s supreme achievements to date. “As You Desire Me” is certainly arresting when Scott Thomas is slinking her way through the shadowy Berlin demi-monde of 1930 where the play begins. But the overall effect is of an attenuated tease without release, as can be life’s frustrating way.
The name, L’Ignota, or “unknown woman,” says it all: The odds are good that the louche German chanteuse we encounter at play’s start may be more or less than she appears. To her growly lover Carl Salter (Bob Hoskins, inexplicably cast in a nothing role), she’s Elma, a cabaret artiste boasting a ready bevy of male admirers. (Women, too: Salter’s daughter, Mop, seems no less smitten.)
But scarcely have we clocked the arrival of a bespectacled stranger, Boffi (Finbar Lynch), before competing claims to our heroine’s identity are made. Elma may in fact be Lucia (or Cia), the errant wife of Italian aristo Bruno (Richard Lintern), whom L’Ignota hasn’t seen since she was taken off and raped during World War I.
“A body without a name,” she muses, soon finding herself at the gorgeous, gilt-edged northern Italian villa that may once have been her home. There, she prompts bickering between Lena (Margaret Tyzack) and Silesio (John Carlisle), her aunt and uncle, who at least agree she’s a living, breathing facsimile of the painting adorning their wall.
Whose bid will prevail for ownership of L’Ignota’s past? One shouldn’t say, beyond pointing out that Salter travels to Italy to argue his case, a madwoman (Stephanie Jacob) in moody, grim-faced tow.
The play could aptly be subtitled “Doubt,” and it will be welcomed both by Pirandello completists and those who think the West End ought to aim higher than it normally does. (Such work is almost always relegated to the subsidized sector, as Kent’s directing past makes plain.) But for all the elegance of the physical production, one can’t help feel its heavyweight cast — Scott Thomas excepted — is barely stretched. Nor does the narrative grip much beyond the game of what L’Ignota refers to as “unmasking the impostor”; it’s an upscale “To Tell the Truth.”
But for all its abstract musings, Scott Thomas made flesh is the sight most spectators will respond to, long after Pirandello’s self-evident points have been made. In one of the few questions not posed by “As You Desire Me,” the play leaves one hungry to know whom — after Chekhov and Pirandello — its gratifyingly stage-hungry star will turn to next.