Lulu – A Murder Ballad – The Tiger Lillies

Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, London (**** music content; ***  visual design/production)

© Tom Arber

© Tom Arber

Lulu, who is she? Femme fatale, fallen woman, whore? Ever since Frank Wedekind created his young temptress, Lulu has been the inspiration for a wildly contrasting selection of interpreters from Alban Berg’s 1937 opera to Lou Reed just before his death in 2013.

The Tiger Lillies’ iconoclastic Martyn Jacques has now turned his hand to Lulu and using Wedekind’s own verses as a basis, come up in this Opera North/West Yorkshire Playhouse/Warwick Arts Centre production, first seen last year in Leeds, frames Lulu within the context of `grooming’ – unequivocally a `victim’, exploited initially by a grasping father and subsequently passed on from male hand to male hand.

Jacques, with his Lindsay Kemp blanched face, blackened eyes and blood red mouth, as ever is extraordinary, swooping between bitter curled lip and high, raging falsetto, bequeathing every word at least double, sometimes treble meanings. And no one dares to take a song so slowly or pointedly. The old classic, `Love for Sale’ is spat out with rare venom.

© Tom Arber

© Tom Arber

Accompanied by Adrian Stout (bass and the beautiful, melancholy musical saw) and Jonas Golland (percussionist), Jacques’ rhythms switch shatteringly from lilting waltz to blasted repetition, nowhere more so than in the climactic Jack the Ripper coda, as if torn from Jacques’ very body: `burn, burn in hell’, he yells whilst immediately asking did Lulu, murdered by Jack, die with gratitude on her face `liberated from the squalid hypocrisy of all of them?’.

Yet despite the ferocity and grandeur, this Lulu’s impact is less than you might expect.

© Tom Arber

© Tom Arber

Animator, photographer, director Mark Holthusen contrasts Jacques furious irony with a series of clever, very beautiful animations of baroque interiors, small town windows and poignantly, the base of the Eiffel Tower. More questionably – if coincidentally casting a fresh comment on the ballet dancer as object of male fantasy – Lulu is dancer Laura Caldow: delightful, gamine, forced into ever increasing motion but only occasionally conveying the sexual danger and ambiguity at the heart of Lulu’s character.

© Tom Arber

© Tom Arber

I’d still walk on hot coals to listen to Jacques and The Tiger Lillies. But last year’s WW1 homage, A Dream Turns Sour (BAC) carried more weight.

Lulu – A Murder Ballad is at the Linbury Studio to Nov 28.

Presented by Opera North, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Warwick Arts Centre.
First perf of Lulu – A Murder Ballad, Courtyard Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Jan 28, 2014..
Commissioned by Opera North Projects.

Review first published in Reviewsgate, Nov 2015 and slightly amended here.

© Tom Arber

© Tom Arber