The figure of Lulu was born out of the Viennese symbolist and decadent movement of the fin de siécle. A theatrical counterpart to Klimt’s femmes fatales who glory in their misdeeds, Frank Wedekind’s anti-heroine of Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904) is an enigmatic, ruthless destroyer of men who inevitably gets her comeuppance at the hands of Jack the Ripper (a real-life murderer of recent memory). The image of Louise Brooks in the film adaptation is recognisable even to those who have never seen a silent film. Alban Berg’s 1934 atonal operatic adaptation arrived in the midst of troubled times for Austria and a troubled piece it is too, left unfinished on his death.
Olga Neuwirth’s adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation was not met with an enthusiastic response on its premiere in Berlin last year. Acts I and II are based on Berg’s original, while Act III is Neuwirth’s own work, her intention being to tell Lulu’s story from her own perspective, rather than through the male gaze. Now receiving its British premiere (Edinburgh and London) by John Fulljames (co-founder and former artistic director of The Opera Group), the self-indulgence of American Lulu is particularly disappointing after his very humane production of Kurt Weill’s Street Scene. It’s an odd fit for the Young Vic (which is not a great acoustic house) as the drama is fatally underexplored. La Dame aux Camelias is another story that holds adaptors in a similar thrall, the difference being that that is a love story, while Lulu has no real romance at all.
The aesthetic is that of a staged concert or nightclub act, with the London Sinfonietta seated on stage, and the main visual interest is in the projections (by Finn Ross) on the fringe curtain draped across the stage. These are quite remarkable to observe, particularly the animated mini-film depicting Lulu’s trial and imprisonment for murder, as if all the attention to detail has gone into these sequences.
Ultimately, Lulu is a faintly misogynistic piece of work that doesn’t lend itself naturally to a feminist spin. Reincarnating the heroine as an exploited black woman in the Deep South during the Civil Rights movement (the hairstyles become increasingly bouffant as time passes) has the potential to be angry and defiant and stirring in exploring the objectification and exoticisation of black women, yet Lulu never feels any more real than she would if she was presented as a straightforward male fantasy. The context – speeches by Martin Luther King and poems by June Jordan – is awkwardly shoehorned in, as if stridently determined to make a comment on what is being performed.
In spite of the title and the presence of an American football player, there’s very little about it that feels American. Resolutely undramatic in spite of all the gunshots, not at all sensual and performed with little regard for its audience, it’s an exercise that promises much but disappoints in the execution.