Brighton Fringe 2017
Director Scott Roberts commissioned a new translation by Freia Metzger of the whole text then adapted it. Roberts with Charly Sommers and Deej Johnson have assembled a Brechtan set. So natural doorframes and porous screens shuffle into a cube on which Dottie James’ startling video projections play. Strat Mastoris’ lighting has to become part of the set: a Bauhaus of brightness. Jezz Bowden’s sound thwacks out thrash music in ritual gusts.
If there’s five hours of Wedekind’s 1895 Lulu, which Lulu do we get? Director Scott Roberts commissioned a new translation by Freia Metzger of the whole text then adapted it. Updating it has perils – we’re no longer exactly shocked by a lesbian countess or unbridled sexuality as power that got Lulu banned, whatever version Wedekind presented: and there’s so many styles, naturalist, satirical, symbolist, scabrous, that any director then and now could assemble a differently-written work.
Lulu herself survives anything so long as she remains inviolably, fiercely herself, untouched by the men who paw her, unrepentant when they burn. Lizzie Stanton here sees to that, and with towering performances from Samuel Dutton in several key roles Stanton enjoys a sparring to the death.
Roberts with Charly Sommers and Deej Johnson have assembled a startlingly Brechtan set exactly objectifying the play that objectifies Lulu. It fits. Brecht attended Wedekind’s funeral somehow in 1918 – with a farcical mock-pompous elegy possibly written by Wedekind himself. So natural doorframes and porous screens shuffle into a cube on which Dottie James’ startling video projections play.
They make a feature not just of this but the whole deep Upstairs space in a sweep rarely seen. James’ images of apples, rotting fruit dancing bodies, Flappers with faces scratched out, deliberately Grosz-like animations jumping in thick black all play across the cube within which Lulu sits, or on one surface. Cutting away from this effect, opening a doorframe elsewhere in mid air scopes rooms and in one late instance the cube migrates to a corner functioning as a card room.
Strat Mastoris’ lighting has to become part of the set: it fills spaces, blows up the cube, throws tenebrous London lighting into a dank attic and brittles everything into a Bauhaus of brightness. Just to let us know this isn’t the miraculous heartrending Berg opera Jezz Bowden’s sound thwacks out thrash music in ritual gusts like a flagellation client.
It’s clear from the commission Roberts knows this work intimately, took pains over what version to assemble. Thus the Eve and apple/snake as well as religious symbolism is drastically pared back though vestigally gestured at – on screen or a simple cross Kasha Goodenough as Geschwitz holds.
More importantly, what shocked in 1895 is pared away. Had it been set in 1895 with these intact the play would have been no less startling, as if a Wilde play was invaded by his own demi-mondaine friends. Roberts opting for modernity can’t allow 1890s values to shudder over sexuality in the same way. And time cut the scene where Geschwitz contracts cholera to infect Lulu on a prison visit and thus have her isolated and effect her escape.
Lulu’s discovered in photographer Schwartz’s studio. Matthew Davies portrays in Schwartz an innocent besotted with Lulu but there’s her husband Dr Goll who just as she allows Schwartz his entry falls dead in the entrance, a large plastic wrap in fact lit with red. lulu recalls what a pig he was and kisses his body. Perhaps a live body could have portrayed this, but it does suggest men are meat. Behind all this, marriage do Gol, or now Schwartz who thinks Lulu a virgin, is Schoning, who alone knows Lulu, plucked her from the streets where sexually abusive ‘father’ Schigolch (a cadaverous effective Gordon Foggo) lurks for cash. He’s always sold Lulu and we understand a sliver of her sexuality, but now Schoning protects her. Dutton, a commanding figure is in incisive form throughout: he domayes his scenes, all but a smouldering Stanton who defies him. Dutton’s rasp, his clarity disposes all things. His blond bearded appearance too, bespeaks a military tang. Schwartz can’t take further revelations and Davies manages the transition from naivety to horror well, his end shown in magic later effect through the Chinese lantern effect where much else traffics in cartoon effect.
Stanton’s good at projecting the sultry how-can-I-help-it approach, a certain inviolable sense of herself, and inscrutability. Requisite sexiness isn’t optional and Stanton suggests sometimes in careful performative measure what her men desire from her. Stanton oscillates Lulu rapidly between supreme control and abandon, particularly when she fears losing a man, more for what he can do for her than emotionally; save Schoning. Nevertheless Lulu’s last sexual bargaining is both fear a new man mightn’t be attracted, part overwhelming desire for something, a kind of oblivion in sex and otherwise. Stanton suggests, as Wedekind does, that Lulu isn’t simply an objectification of male lust: her damaged abused desires are real, but she herself can’t rationalise their origin, and doesn’t care to be analysed.
Schoning for a while becomes Lulu’s third husband but finally demands Lulu shoots herself. His son Alfie’s besotted – Chris Knight is appealingly youthful and exudes the right kind of haplessness. She turns the gun on him; again all behind the Chinese lantern screens. Lulu and Alfie with Geschwitz hopelessly in love with Lulu and Schigolch, escape through Europe. Here Lulu’s blackmailed (Davies now vengeful servant Fernando, Dutton a James Scott Moriarty-like American blackmailer Casto-Piani with Elton John shades). arranging with the obviously abusive Schigolch to have Fernando killed.
What happens to Casto-Piani isn’t clear but they’re off. Financial ruin and mass scenes aren’t needed; we get the downward spiral. Wedekind’s point too is that Lulu’s earlier victims come back at her through various guises, played by the same actors.
Holed in London the final scene plays out, Alfie’s not the man his father was; one punter take umbrage at him, Geschwitz contemplates suicide and Lulu brings home rapacious Jack (Dutton again, stealing the show in cabby cap and Cockney).
This outstandingly-conceived production boasts exceptional pace with a perfectly-realised set and lighting, and two exceptional performances; Dutton is outstanding, commanding his scenes and Stanton riveting and contained so Lulu’s force remains both enigmatic and destructive. There’s good work too from Davies and Foggo in their various roles, Knight and Goodenough neatly evoke theirs – mainly as vulnerable to Lulu – to round the ensemble.
Though occasionally uneven this Lulu is a must-see, and should it ever tour or return it might prove a classic interpretation; though I’d still love to see it invade a Wilde drawing room with Prussian-cut beards and trousered countesses.