by Peter Gill
Review by Jeremy Kingston, The Times, 8 June 2002
Three-and-a-half hours is a daunting length for a new play, even for one that closely follows the storyline of Wedekind’s two Lulu plays, tracing the central character’s erotic course from object of desire through triumph to his death by the knife of Jack the Ripper. His death? Well, yes, for this is Peter Gill’s recreation of Lulu as a gay object of desire, set in an all-male 1890s of chandeliers and silverware glittering against the murk.
Once having thought of turning Lulu, wayward earth spirit, into Angel, beautiful street urchin, the idea must have been hard to resist, and the irresistible creature’s progress from guttersnipe to kept boy, from artist’s model to music-hall star to murderer and escaped prisoner, parallels the original while adding a suggestion — no more — that a man arrested for loving men risked five years in gaol picking oakum. But the laws of the time are not what interest Gill, it’s the tragic — occasionally farcical — implications of frantic passion.
Perhaps it is this frenzy that makes so much of the play appear faintly absurd. One can suspend disbelief in Wedekind’s characters because he created them a hundred years ago when rhetorical cries of yearning and despair were quite the thing. But in a play written today, even if set in the very different past, a painter’s howls of misery on learning that his beloved model’s character is far from innocent carry little conviction.
Andrew Scott’s flutey, flirty voice and his testing stare, suggesting defiance but also detachment, perfectly suit the character of a sex tease. And even more than Lulu he is presented as a social victim, as though being since boyhood the object of male passion removes a chap’s capacity to love. But while Gill roams the wilder shores of obsession, the nature of the love that leads to this is left unexplored. It would seem that physical beauty is enough, a very Nineties notion. The 1890s, that is.
Gill himself directs, with his usual intense concern for small revealing gestures as well as for the general look of the stage at each moment. Scene changes are intentionally long, eventually becoming sepulchral, with top-hatted gents, or circus performers, or it might be ageing roués, supervising the alterations as though reconstructing a dream or, well, a play.
A knowledge of the Wedekind adds a relish to the Gill, though until the sordid end one is never certain of what is to come next. But it is finally an unsatisfactory work. Perhaps the sense of unavoidable doom is the trouble. Love is awful, gay love’s worse, one minute the cradle, next minute the hearse.
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