Almeida Theatre in temporary quarters. Translated by Wes Williams
Lulu, ultimate title of a play begun as Astarte, continued as Divine Birth, and completed as Pandora’s Box: A Monster Tragedy. Nicholas Wright, author of a play seen here in London last year, Cressida (which I didn’t like), adapted a “literal translation” (that banal oxymoron) by Wes Williams, for the Almeida Company in temporary quarters in the old coach station in Omega Place, off the Caledonian Road, King’s Cross, while the permanent house in Angel is extensively refurbished and rehabilitated.
When the stage is really opened up, in the last, “London,” act of the play, we realize how extraordinarily deep it is. The previous action, in Germany and Paris, has been played in a much shallower space, “curtained” off by a series of hinged, semi-translucent panels that part at the center and fold, accordion-like, back against what passes for a proscenium arch. It is basically a viable acting space, but something is not right acoustically; speech was not as distinct as it could be, and I failed (even with my aid in the right ear) to understand all that was said, especially by Lulu’s father, whose mushy speech was well-nigh unintelligible.
The center of interest is the title character, Lulu, a beautiful young woman who is, and has been from her childhood, a creature of men’s insatiable sexual desires. She is played by Anna Friel, an actress with a dark-eyed, sensual loveliness of face and a gorgeous body. The play has been in previews for a little while, but Friel apparently hurt her foot in rehearsals, and so press night and opening night were put off. It was a wise move; the production, which I saw just the day before press night, had not quite gelled; there were longueurs, particularly in the Paris (middle) section, where a long table, canted toward up left from near the center of the stage, did more to impede the action, by displacing most of it to stage right, than it helped to ground the general revelry of a decadent club clientele.
The story is a gruesome one: Lulu goes through a series of lovers and husbands — it is hard to tell one from the other — in Germany, Paris, and London, where the action moves as Lulu escapes the law, and as her fortunes, which early on were on the rise, rapidly decline. She ends in a tawdry, ill-lighted, unheated basement of a warehouse or some such derelict building (the old hull of a coach station coming ready-made for this setting) where she makes vain attempts to keep herself going from the meager proceeds of street prostitution, and where one of her customers turns out to be a violent misogynist-murderer who cuts her up in unspeakable ways and carries off his bloody trophy in a plastic bag to sell to a medical school.
Wedekind’s earlier title was on the mark: to come in contact with Lulu is to open a Pandora’s box of ills, and the resulting tragedy is indeed monstrous. But it is, as the program comments, an ambiguous play, finally. Lulu is a ravishingly attractive woman, and her own attraction to men establishes a reciprocity that results in a stream of lovers, all of whom come to grief in some way (not seldom, by losing their lives). In other words, Lulu is a femme fatale. One begins to recognize here the familiar outlines of the Medusa-like siren who, in the fiction and art of the fin de siècle, lures men to their doom. But the idea in Wedekind’s hands is more complex. We are given to understand that, at a remarkably young age, when Lulu was still a child, she was violated by her own father and that this has set up a morbid psychological compulsiveness on Lulu’s part to connect with other men. Her progress through the world thus becomes a kind of morality tale: men should not succumb to this temptation, but they do and so they suffer for it. In a kind of retribution at once undeserved and inevitable, the tables are turned on Lulu in a definitive way. She is simultaneously the undoer of men and their victim. We think of Jack the Ripper, exacting a horrible vengeance on women for being so irresistible. Lulu’s end is not unlike that.
So: what is the reason for reviving a play that seems to be so deeply enmeshed in cultural conditions a century old that, we might have thought, have altered greatly after two world conflagrations, the considerable liberation of women, and other events and conditions that have reconstructed the relations between women and men? Is this not much more than a period piece? Why does this play merit attention in 2001 while, say, Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray does not? The answer seems to be that we are not as distant from the culture and mores of the 1890s in Europe as we might have thought. Wedekind manages to capture a good bit of the ambivalence and strain that still characterize male-female relations. And besides, it’s a fascinating story, at whose center is a character who captures our attentions, physically but in other ways as well, not least because she seems so amoral — so completely untroubled by the consequences that, to an important extent, have always attached themselves to human social behavior. And so she functions as the fulfillment of a fantasy: wouldn’t we too like to behave as if the world were our oyster, living lives of sybaritic pleasure? Of course we would. But the world has a way of forcing us into acceding to some sort of inevitable come-uppance. In an important sense, we are the murderers of Lulu, and the Ripper character is merely our surrogate. The murder deeply horrifies us, but at some level it also makes us feel safe again, now that Lulu and her fatal charms have been contained. Monstrous, yes.
It’s a messy play, finally, unkempt and rough around the edges. The audience seemed to love it, all the same; and it will probably survive the severities of the critics, who will fault Anna Friel for this and that and complain of how unfocused the Paris scene is. A few years ago I saw, in the fringe somewhere, a production of Wedekind’s earlier play Spring Awakening: a much more tightly constructed paean to healthy sexuality, but so controversial it could not be produced in 1890 when it was written. (Max Reinhart brought it to the stage fifteen years later, as mentioned in the program notes.) It’s interesting to think of both of these plays as written by the same man. In both cases, the moral rigidity of a society that is itself quite decadent is juxtaposed with the fraught expression (given those adverse circumstances) of innately healthy physical impulses. It leaves one thinking long and hard about what it means to be human. Finally, that’s why the play, despite the challenges it presents to actor, director, and designer, is worth looking at still.