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A CurtainUp London  Review

By Lizzie Loveridge

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I've kept my innocence all my life, only to drown in filth.  
-- Lulu

Anna Friel as Lulu
(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)

The Almeida has a knack of finding exciting theatrical spaces with plenty of room for the pre-theatre audience to mingle. Last year we had the splendour of the Fiennes productions of Richard II and Coriolanus in a converted film studio and this year, while their premises in Islington are being renovated, a defunct bus garage in seedy King's Cross has been converted into a wide staged theatre. Frank Wedekind's (his full name was Benjamin Franklin Wedekind) play Lulu comes as the flagship opening of the Almeida's new temporary premises. It is the second time within a decade that the Almeida has revived the Lulu plays, so on this occasion the Almeida does not score points for producing a newly, rediscovered work. This version, however, is a new one written by Nicholas Wright whose new play Cressida the Almeida produced last year. It is directed by the Almeida's joint Artistic Director, Jonathan Kent and stars Alan Howard, an actor of such calibre that his very presence in a production is usually a recommendation in itself. Anna Friel, a young actress who has moved from the British, Liverpool-set television soap, Brookside, to BBC classic drama, to film, to success on Broadway in Patrick Marber's play Closer, takes the eponymous role.

I am prompted to paraphrase the old music hall song that was long a favorite of Eddie Cantor's "If you knew Lulu, like I know Lulu/ Oh, oh, oh what a girl!" Well it seems that almost everyone in this play knows Lulu in the biblical sense. Each lover has a different name for her, Popsy, Eve, Mignon, Mitzi, Katya, as like a human chameleon, she lives their lie or sexual fantasy. The five acts of the play take place in Germany, in Paris and in London.

We first meet Lulu (Anna Friel) as she models almost naked, in a diaphanous Pierrot costume, for an artist Eduard Schwarz (James Hillier) for a portrait commissioned by her lascivious, older husband Dr Goll (Roger Swaine) - the revealing costume designed by him. She is amazingly beautiful and desirable and looks innocent and childlike although her lifestyle is very depraved. She is widowed and remarries, firstly, the artist, who commits suicide on discovering his wife's infidelity. Secondly, she blackmails a sophisticated man of the world, Dr Schoning (Alan Howard), into marrying her. She murders Dr Schoning after he tells her to shoot herself. She then marries his son, Alwa (Oliver Milburn), with whom she flees to Paris. In Paris, Lulu and Alwa mix with high society but lose all their money in a stock market collapse. The sinister figure of Schigolch (Tom Georgeson) keeps reappearing. He is perhaps her father but almost definitely the man who started her as a child prostitute at an unbearably young age. A scene in Paris where a little girl offers to "work" to get her mother out of financial difficulties caused by the same stock market collapse underlines Lulu's own story. A German countess, Martha of Geschwitz, loses fortune and self respect in pursuit of Lulu. Finally Lulu is mutilated and murdered in London by a stranger, a client Jack (Peter Sullivan), as she struggles to earn a living to support the others, her husband, Schigolch and the Countess, in the only way that she knows how. From the toast of high society in Paris, she descends to its "homeless" depths on a filthy mattress in an abandoned building. Lulu is a complex, cruel and violent play where sex is a commodity and there is no love or affection, only desire and money.

While Anna Friel is beautiful and childlike, her performance seemed to me to be too innocent; she lacks the dissolution that Lulu also has to encompass. She needs to be a voluptuous woman, amoral as her own preservation overrides any sense of values, as well as a little girl. And that, sadly, is where this production falls down. Of the husbands, Roger Swaine's rich, old Dr Goll is lecherous; James Hillier's artist is nave. I liked Alan Howard's drawling and ponderous but intelligent man of society who is also a heroin addict and the only man who seems to approach an understanding of who Lulu really is and the journey she has made. James Faulkner as the Marquis Casti-Piani in Paris is oily smooth and "vice incarnate". The Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege gives a Germanic intensity to the Lesbian, Geschwitz, whom Lulu brings down. Tom Georgeson, who appears in all three locations, tramp-like but accepted, as Lulu's original pimp and maybe her father, is suitably corrupt and grasping.

Jonathan Kent's production moves apace, the sinister figure of the stranger appearing before every act to a plaintive song from Friel about the man she is waiting for; this man is not a lover but the instrument of her death. The violence, as in Greek tragedy, takes place off stage but glimpses of copious amounts of blood leave us in no doubt as to the brutal ends. Rob Howell's set has panels of glass, etched with dirt and damaged, as filthy as the society and often lit red like a traditional brothel. In costume and furnishings the acts in Germany are set in the first decade of the twentieth century; in Paris, mid century; and the final act in the King's Cross of today, an area where many young prostitutes ply their sordid trade to feed the needs of their pimps. Another case of art imitating life. Strange that Wedekind's play was condemned as decadent and depraved when in fact its message is strongly against the hypocrisy of society and sexual profligacy.

Written by Frank Wedekind
in a new version by Nicholas Wright
Directed by Jonathan Kent

Starring: Anna Friel, Alan Howard
With: James Hillier, Roger Swaine, Oliver Milburn, Imogen Slaughter, Tom Georgeson, Leon Lissek, Johanna ter Steege, Andrew Ufondu, Jason Pitt, Sid Mitchell, Samia Akudo, Marella Oppenheim, James Faulkner, Anna Maguire/Francesa Murray-Fuentes
Design: Rob Howell
Lighting Design: Mark Henderson
Sound Design: John A Leonard
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to 12th May 2001
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 27th March 2001 performance at the Almeida at King's Cross Omega Place off Caledonian Road, King's Cross London N1 9DR

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2001   Elyse Sommer.