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Lulu: The Tiger Lillies at Contact Theatre, Manchester

2014 February 24

By Guy Woolnough

Lulu, based on the verses of Wedekind, performed by the Tiger Lillies[1], is a dark, compelling and shocking show. It shocks in the most affecting way, not with overt displays of violence or sex, but with powerful words and an intense narrative. I found the performance stunning and fascinating: it is good.

The Tiger Lillies

Lulu, the eponymous heroine danced by Laura Caldow, is the beauty from the slums who is abused and exploited by men. From her childhood in Germany we are in no doubt that this is a dance of death, stepping casually over the men whose lives are forfeit in Lulu’s rise, then spiralling downwards until she meets her final lover/abuser in Whitechapel, London, in 1888.

Lulu (Laura Caldow) and her father (Martyn Jacques).

The performance is essentially a monologue, delivered by her ostensible father, played by Martyn Jacques, who deploys an effective falsetto and a contrasting growl. The contrast presents the fascination with evil which drives this show, the superficial ‘fun’ which thinly veneers the profound horror of abuse. Although the father is not presented as an incestuous abuser, he is, as he pimps his daughter, the most culpable man in the story. Lulu is mute through the performance, as is appropriate for a woman whose entire existence is predicated upon the whims of men. She dances through the show to present an object of unreal fascination, a doll but also a continual reminder of the physicality of the human body that is being traded.  Despite the explicit vocabulary, Lulu dances demurely, with eroticism shown only in the final, awful encounter. The music maintains an air of pregnant menace, never sounding joyful or enthusiastic. The tempo remains even and the use of unusual instruments such as the theremin prolongs a mood of suspense, dislocation and subliminal dread. There is little hedonism in the performance. Sexual joy or pleasure has been totally eliminated.

Ennui, Walter Sickert, 1911, Tate Britain

I was reminded strongly of the work of Walter Sickert, the artist of low-life Victorian London.[2] This is not simply because Sickert was drawn to the Ripper story; it formed but a small part of his oeuvre. More relevant is Sickert’s fascination with the tawdry and superficial pleasures of the music hall and circus, which he depicted in several bright and chaotic canvases. These contrast strongly with his dark, mundane and sinister interiors, just as Lulu contrasts aethereal dancing with the sordid theme of the plot. Works such as Ennui and Off to the Pub show a casual and threatening dominance of the home by the father, which is just the relationship implied between Lulu and her putative father. Sinister male domination of the home is also depicted in What Shall we do about the Rent?  In this work, the male figure seems to be planning to prostitute his woman to meet the need for ready money. It is interesting that Sickert renamed this The Camden Town Murder.[3] The renaming completely changes the viewer’s perspective on the piece. It is this ambiguity in Sickert’s work that came to me as I watched Lulu. The horror is not shown explicitly but is nonetheless hardly concealed. The spare but disjointed setting of Lulu highlights the sense of unease.

What Shall we do about the Rent? or The Camden Town Murder

Lulu is clearly a Victorian story, ending as it does in that most ‘Victorian’ scenes of horror in Whitechapel, 1888. Nonetheless, this production is firmly located in contemporary discourses on masculinity. The issues addressed are child abuse, sexual trafficking and rape. The most shocking part of the production was, for me, the conclusion in which the father sings My Heart Belongs to Daddy. It is dreadful because the father who sings this song so shortly after his daughter’s evisceration is the one whose guilt is greatest.

 I recommend Lulu. If you wish to see it, it is next performed at Northern Stage, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, February 27th, 28th and March 1st. The production is by Opera North, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Warwick Arts Centre.

[1] Laura Caldow, Martyn Jacques, Adrian Stout, Mike Pickering

[2] Intriguingly, Sickert was born in Munich, the city where Wedekind placed Lulu’s birth. Sickert was producing his low-life pictures at the same time that Wedekind was writing Lulu.

[3] The Camden town murder victim was a prostitute. For a reasoned account of Sickert’s life, see:  http://www.casebook.org/dissertations/dst-artofmurder.html

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