Anna Ledwich’s adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s complementary and scandalous plays Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box (previously banned, made into a film with Louise Brooks, then an opera, then a graphic novel) is presented at the Gate in collaboration with Headlong, as part of the Gate’s New Directions award for reinterpretation of European classics. The somewhat confused and multifaceted history of the text, which compliments the ambiguity of both Wedekind’s tone and his heroine’s life, allows Ledwich to bring the play seamlessly to modern times, with a precise and convincing use of language, and into Helen Goddard’s extremely effective, drab brown set of dirty sink and rough curtains - finally opening into a glass room, à la Amsterdam red light district, Lulu’s squalid Pandora’s box.
Like the Marilyn Monroe whose ‘I wanna be loved by you’ we hear ad nauseam through the evening, Ledwich’s Lulu (or Mignon, or Lolly, or Eve - depending on who owns her at the time) is surrounded by men who first desire her to the point of distraction, then convince themselves they created her, call her ‘monster’ for her effect on them, and finally move as close as they can to destroying her, their caresses and kisses always verging on assaults, their love turned obsession turned depravity and violence. And like with Marilyn Monroe, it is difficult to say what Lulu makes of all of this, if she enjoys the lust she generates as power, or is terrified by it. She often seems oblivious to the exploitation, and yet there are glimpses indicating that she is perfectly aware. She teases constantly, yet almost never shows to enjoy any of it. She mirrors her lovers’ sentences, repeating almost word by word what they tell her, giving back the image they want - and in this sense works very much as a reflection of their morality or lack thereof.
But Wedekind was not trying to offer a psychological portrait, or to dig up these men’s motivations, and Ledwich is mercifully uninterested in superimposing explanations on the original. Lulu’s old and rotten father, who reappears with his disturbing innuendos whenever she is in particular difficulty, might or might not have something to do with her being passed around since she was seven. She might or might not love the mature Schoning (for whom Sean Campion finds a sort of twisted Cary Grant key); she might or might not want to be portrayed by the painter hired to pass her on to posterity, Michael Colgan’s skinny and electric Schwartz. The production steers clear of analysis, and preserves the middle ground between tragedy and farce, bleakness and absurdity.
Sinead Matthews’ beautiful incarnation of Lulu surfs between nymph, frustrated child and femme fatale. Her voice oscillates between high octaves and hoarseness, and there seems to be a strong focus on her belly: drawn in then pushed out, exposed for most of the play, stained with chocolate ice-cream and with blood. Her end is a heartbreaking kick in the gut for the audience; Ledwich has managed the difficult feat of making Wedekind as shocking for the toughed up, 2010 London public as it had been in 1900s Vienna.
Till 10 July 2010