This warning-shot play, first fired just over 100 years ago and aimed at men who cannot resist a femme fatale's siren call, still maintains its capacity to disturb. Frank Wedekind's Lulu, as Jonathan Kent's production makes strikingly clear, describes a woman's revenge in a world where females are regarded as property in marriage or vehicles to be ridden recklessly for pleasure outside it. Sex is treated with a dark, sophisticated cynicism that make Ibsen and Chekhov seem old-fashioned by comparison. Wedekind despised the late 19th-century fear of sexual freedom and hypocritical attempts to repress teenage sexuality: Anna Friel's fascinating Lulu, a cross between one of those swooning, silent-movie vamps and an older, sexier sister of Lolita's, has something of a damaged, conscienceless little-girl lost about her.
Kent's production of this neglected tragi-comedy launches the Almeida upon 18 months exile, while its theatre is improved. Sadly, the Almeida's temporary home, conjured out of a disused coach station near King's Cross, is hideously unappealing. Some £850,000 has been wasted on transforming this vast space. Why not move to an already existing playhouse? The stage is too big, broad and deep for the Almeida's style of intimate playing. Rob Howell's set, with its screen of semi-opaque glass panels smudged with silver and black colours, decorates rather than helps the action on the yawning stage. Voices are in danger of being swallowed up in this vastness. The bench seats are overpacked, allowing too little space per person. Perhaps Mr Kent would explain why he contemptuously inflicts such discomfort upon theatre-goers.
The spiritual discomfort caused by Lulu is, however, decidedly bracing. Scorning the well-made play's traditional format, Wedekind traces the decline and fall of Lulu in five acts and three countries. Alan Howard's nonchalantly amoral newspaper editor, caught up in sex and drugs rather than deadlines, a crooked banker selling shares and James Faulkner's blackmailing Marquis, all represent the male world of power and influence by which Lulu is ultimately defeated.
Wedekind's outspokeness, his eagerness to say out loud what was hardly said in whispers, characterises the play. Lulu, abused in childhood, retaliates in maturity by exploiting and enjoying men, until the figure who watches the action from the sidelines plays his destructive hand. She's a rare, 19th-century stage-girl who revels in lashings of sex without thought of love and commitment. The appeal of Miss Friel's sexy performance depends upon its restraint, guile and cool. When she flaunts or flashes - a bare bottom or a complete thigh - it's done with child-like glee and naughtiness. In her first scene, posing for a picture commissioned by one of her old husbands and painted by James Hillier's smitten young painter, she wears little more than tassels and strategic pom-poms, but makes no exhibition of herself. And the deaths of three husbands leave her calm and callous.
Kent's exuberant production falters in scenes of scenes of Parisian and London decline: the atmosphere is far too 21st century. But the Fedyeauesque sequences in which Howard's beautifully suave editor observes his own son (a rather wooden Oliver Milburn) pleasuring Lulu goes with a comic swing. And in a dilapidated London attic, with Tom Georgeson as Lulu's putative daddy going absurdly over the top, Miss Friel's screams bring this valuable play to the right awful finale.
Nicholas de Jong
The London Evening Standard, 20.3.01.