Pros: A stellar performance from the talented Katy Mulhern, and a highly charged production.
Cons: An unremittingly gruelling second half in need of some judicious trimming to make it a tighter, more satisfying evening.
The tiny London Theatre in New Cross is a shoebox-sized venue with a quirky bar, where airline seats rub up against reproduction Chippendale. It’s the sort of space where you’d expect to see a light and frothy comedy. However, there’s nothing lightweight about Lulu, originally written by Frank Wedekind as two separate but linked plays in 1895 and 1904. This is drama as visceral as it gets.
The play opens in the photographic studio of Schwarz, enthusiastically played by Luke Willats. He’s visited by his playwright friend Alva, when they are interrupted by the arrival of Alva’s father, the newspaper editor Schoning, as well as Doctor Goll and his gorgeous, gamine new wife Lulu. They’re there so that Schwarz can complete his series of photographs of her, dressed in an erotic pierrot costume. And so the core cast is assembled onstage.
Goll objectifies Lulu entirely, inviting his friends to examine her in detail, and seemingly oblivious to the fact that they’re all obsessed with her. Lulu herself appears detached from the proceedings, apparently content in her role as a prop to be manipulated; but when Schwarz declares his passion for her, she encourages his advances. This is a woman who understands the power she has over men, and who knows how to use it.
Each man uses Lulu for his own purposes, both naming her and decorating her as he chooses; Goll refers to her always as Nellie. ‘My name isn’t Nellie, it’s Lulu,’ she insists, to which Schwarz replies, ‘I shall call you Eve.’ She bemoans the fact that Goll dresses her for the approval of his guests, ‘In costume, I’m always in costume… everyone meets a different version of me.’
Lulu’s powerful sexuality ultimately destroys the men she entrances. It can be uncomfortable experiencing graphically simulated oral and penetrative sex when you’re just five feet from the performers, and it’s one of the few moments when the London Theatre feels awkwardly small. Incidentally, admittance to the play has an age restriction of 18 years old, which is probably a good idea.
The first half of the play charts Lulu’s progress from man to man, using up each one while carrying on an affair with the next. She’s wholly unrepentant, relishing her sexual power, ‘How can I have a shred of regret for someone who allows himself to be lied to every day?’ After the interval we see why Lulu was originally written as two plays. Where the first half was darkly comic, with moments of humour sometimes bordering on farce, the second half has no such levity. It’s a relentlessly bleak depiction of Lulu’s descent through the depths of depravity, accompanied by her vile, money-grabbing father – eager to repeat the sexual molestations he forced on her as a child – and her frustrated lesbian admirer, whom she taunts with flirtatious teasing. It’s a dark downward spiral that can only end in tragedy.
This is a hugely ambitious play, requiring demanding performances from its entire cast. Shining out above the rest is the glorious portrayal of Lulu herself by the astonishing Katy Mulhern, who also wrote this new version of the play. Not only does she have the charismatic physicality needed for the role, but she’s also an actor of tremendous depth and skill, who subtly conveys Lulu’s progress from wide-eyed ingénue to manipulative mistress, to downtrodden and misused courtesan. ‘It’s all so terrible,’ she confesses. ‘I don’t know what I’m being punished for.’
Lulu can be difficult to watch, especially the violent and grim second half; but it’s a compelling and rewarding drama.
Author: Frank Wederkind
Adaptation by: Katy Mulhern
Director: Steve Fitzgerald
Producer: Pandemonium Performance
Booking until: 25 January 2015
Box office: 0208 694 1888
Booking link: http://wegottickets.com/pandemoniumperformance