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What do you suppose it was that led authors to come up with the convention of the femme fatale? These alluringly exotic creatures are legion in plays and novelssirens who lure Greek warriors to watery graves, asp-clasping queens, tubercular harlotsbut they’re harder to come by in real life.
Posit a prom queen or a career woman for whom men would die on short acquaintance and you immediately make the men into idiots. Mata Hari requires only a veil to spin a man-snaring web, but in the world outside literature, romantic liaisons are more complicated and take time. Lust looks silly by daylight.
So it makes sense that the Almeida Theatre Company should ask us to peer through shadows and a wall of smudged windowpanes at the title character in Frank Wedekind’s Lulu. As the house lights fade, fog billows ominously in the background, and a mysterious figure lights a cigarette outside Lulu’s window, briefly illuminating his face in the murky twilight, while the heroine croons a sour, Kurt Weill-ish paean to death.
So dark an approach would never work for Shaw’s Pygmalion, another early-20th-century social critique about the sudden celebrity of a flower-selling guttersnipe, whose drunken father casually offers her for sale and whose “education” at the hands of older gentlemen is somewhat suspect. Shaw was playing Eliza Doolittle’s story for class-conscious comedy, of course, whereas Wedekind spends only the first half of Lulu mocking his characters’ obsessions and courting laughter. Thereafter, the focus turns to the heroine, not her suitors, and the mood goes gothic.
But apart from those smudged windowpanes and sour songs, there’s barely a hint of that dark trajectory at first. Instead, the audience is encouraged to chuckle as Lulu’s many admirers fall for her and then fall by the wayside. We first spy her posing in a bohemian artist’s studio, being ogled by, among others, her husband, an aging doctor who has both a jealous streak and a weak heart; a media baron, who has sampled her charms and yearns to taste them again; and the giddily virginal painter, so smitten with his subject that he can barely see straight.
“The paint won’t stick….It’s melting off the canvas,” he moans as he adds daubs of pigment to his painting of a filmy tunic that does nothingin art or in lifeto hide Lulu’s shapely curves. When the doctor leaves the studio briefly, the artist flirts with his coquettish subject and is soon chasing her around the couch. Then the doctor, catching them in the act, collapsesand Lulu becomes first a widow, then the artist’s wife. The artist being equally territorial, Lulu is soon widowed again, becoming the media baron’s wife, and then his son’s after him, and then…well, you get the drift.
Almeida’s cast plays all these developments as a roundelay of sexual social climbing, mining the groping, grasping, and grinding for laughs right up through intermission. But Wedekind wrote Lulu as two separate plays, and the second of them isn’t about rising action but a fall from grace. The deaths of Lulu’s many admirers have thus far been treated as dramatically insignifciant, but let the title character herself be threatened and the author switches gears. In Act 2, the men who have been obsessing over Lulu get distracted by a 13-year-old virgin whose allure is…well, purerand once the heroine can no longer seduce her way out of trouble, both she and her dramatist start to see casual sex as merely exploitative, a capitalist transaction that corrupts the buyer and bankrupts the seller. Lulu spirals back down the social ladder from her tony Paris salon to a seedy London flat, where Jack the Ripper is the guy peering in through the windowpanes.
Anna Friel makes Lulu an attractive blank slate on which admirersincluding audience members, presumablycan project their fantasies. But the actress is quickly caught in a trap of the author’s making. Blank slates are not, inherently, of much dramatic interest, and Lulu, to be all things to all comers, must be blanker than most. In the opening scene, one of the artist’s customers says of another woman’s portrait, “I can’t fault the likenessit’s the essence that’s missing,” and it’s hard to avoid having similar misgivings about Wedekind’s portrait of the evening’s central character. As played by Friel, she’s attractive but vacant, alluring but indistinct. She experiences life, but she doesn’t particularly give evidence of having learned anything from living. It’s easy to imagine a suitor being attractedsmitten evenbut obsessed? Why would admirers die to see themselves reflected in the eyes of this empty vessel? Ultimately, I guess, because the author wants them to.
That said, Almeida has certainly done what it can to make the evening kick up its heels. Rob Howell’s expressionist settings whisk us from artist’s studio to upper-crust apartment to shabby tenement, as cast members make sharp impressions in the brief moments they’re allowed in the spotlight with their fickle leading lady, then fade back into the shadows. Recognizing that serial sexcapades will necessarily feel repetitive despite adapter Nicholas Wright’s clever strategems for varying their moods, Kent’s staging tries to make up in briskness what the plot lacks in brevity. For the most part, he’s successful, though the evening drags a bit in its last half-hour. By that time, lust has given way to mere wantonness, the cold light of day approaches, and no femme could possibly seem as fatale as she did while having her portrait painted by a virgin who thinks his paint is melting in her presence. CP