This Lulu leaves a lot to be desired
by Peter Gill
Review by Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph, 7 June 2002
It's only fair-dos, I suppose. For years, heterosexual men have been drooling over Lulu, Wedekind's beautiful, amoral siren who casually leads the poor saps she enslaves to destruction.
Watching Georg Wilhelm Pabst's famous silent film version, starring the matchlessly sexy Louise Brooks, the gay dramatist Peter Gill once wistfully observed: "If only Lulu could be a young man." Well, now she is.
Though it is being billed as a new play, Gill's Original Sin offers a surprisingly faithful version of Wedekind's two Lulu plays, Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box. Almost every incident can be found in the original texts, though Gill has tightened up the episodic plot that Wedekind agonised over through years of feverish rewriting.
The action, however, has been transposed to a specifically homosexual underworld in London and Paris in the decadent 1890s, and Lulu has undergone a sex change to become Angel, a beautiful 18-year-old boy, who proves fatally irresistible to every man he meets. There isn't a single female character on stage in this claustrophobic gay extravaganza, which exudes corrosive despair rather than titillating sex appeal.
Gill proves incapable of Wildean wit and style, though there are clear Wildean echoes. The portrait of Angel in his beautiful prime, which we watch being painted in the first act and which is trundled on to the stage throughout the action, inevitably recalls The Picture of Dorian Gray, with the crucial difference that here it is Angel rather than his portrait that displays the ravages of time. And, as Angel destroys the lives of the more talented people who surround him, it is impossible to forget how the equally worthless Bosie destroyed the life of Wilde.
Gill's theme is best summed up by Lord Henry Wantage, a besotted aristocrat who will do anything for his beloved Angel, only to be treated with cruel indifference in return. "Why are men so terrible to men?" he asks as he attempts to hang himself, and this tone of tormented self-pity proves the hallmark of Gill's punishingly long (three-and-half hours) and sometimes punishingly boring play.
Any production of the Lulu plays stands or falls with the actress chosen to play her — and productions usually fail, because few actresses (apart from Brooks) have the magical sexuality that can explain why so many men succumb so disastrously to her charm.
The same problem afflicts Gill's gay version. Though everyone rhapsodises about Angel's beauty, it is hard to see what they are getting so worked up about. Andrew Scott is an excellent actor, but he is no homosexual Adonis. He has the ferrety, watchful look of a rentboy, even when his seductions propel him into the beau monde, and, at moments of crisis, he becomes shrilly hysterical. Why should a powerful newspaper proprietor, a handsome aristocrat, and a successful portrait painter be so smitten by this heartless little runt? But perhaps that is Gill's point. There is no logic in the cruel inequality of love.
Gill directs his own production with a spare, painterly detail (Alison Chitty is the minimalist designer) and at an exasperatingly leisurely pace. Only the desperately bleak final act, when the by now impoverished Angel succumbs to the fate he has always imagined at the hands of a sex killer, does Original Sin succeed in packing a brutal dramatic punch.
There is some strong support, most notably from John Normington, who supplies some desperately needed flashes of humour as Angel's disreputble adoptive father; from Michael Byrne as the steely newspaper proprietor whom Angel reduces to morphine addiction and murderous fury; and from Barry Howard as a hilarious old queen of a theatrical dresser. But, my goodness, it is a relief when this grim and maudlin play finally stops.
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