The Tiger Lillies: Lulu – A Murder Ballad

Good Lord, she gets around, this Lulu. Spreads herself about a bit. A couple of plays by Frank Wedekind (Earth Spirit, 1895, and Pandora’s Box, 1904). An opera by Alban Berg. At least four films, including the GW Pabst classic reworking of Pandora’s Box, featuring the legendary Louise Brooks sporting that haircut. A character in the Final Fantasy series of video games. The inspiration for the last-ever album by Lou Reed. And now, the subject of a contemporary opera by The Tiger Lillies.

But who is the elusive Lulu? What is she? Are we any the wiser? Do we get any insight into her thoughts and dreams and desires? No, of course not. Lulu eludes us, as she has always done. A girl who goes by many names: not only Lulu, but also Mignon, Eve, Nellie. She is a blank canvas, a fabrication, a doll. A depository of men’s dark dreams and dirty desires.

The Tiger Lillies’ Martyn Jacques takes Frank Wedekind’s verses as the starting point for his lyrics: She was born in the big city / In the middle of a slum / A chap called Shig pass for her Papa / And a harlot was her mum. In the programme notes, Jacques says ‘it was hard writing the songs for Lulu. You’re drawn into a very dark place’. And if you have any previous experience of the Tiger Lillies’ work, you’ll know that if Jacques finds the subject matter dark, then ye gods it must be the darkest of the dark.

The resulting production pulls no punches. We encounter the whole terrible tale – child abuse, rape, prostitution, exploitation, murder – through Martyn Jacques’ sung lyrics, and his spoken words delivered in character as her amoral father, Shig. We are never placed inside her experience – everything is seen from the outside. But the trajectory is clear enough: behind the Femme Fatale who lures men to their destruction is the abused child, sold into prostitution at a terrifyingly young age by her father. Passed from man to man, until she is old enough to take it upon herself to conspire with her father ‘to see what could be had’. But she’s never herself: ‘For each man she’s a mirror’. Again and again Jacques’ lyrics describe her as a doll – a doll to be dressed and played with, a puppet to be manipulated. She drifts silently through every scene: Jacques as Shig chucks her chin as he leers at her; or she stands on the piano and stares down at him. When we hear of her being painted, then bedded, by the artist Schwarz she moves ghost-like through a series of empty frames projected onto the screen.

Our Lulu here is played by Laura Caldow, a Merce Cunningham trained dance-theatre artist who has worked with Deborah Warner and Maresa Von Stockert, and is a frequent collaborator with Will Tuckett. Apart from the three Tiger Lillies, she is the only performer. The portrayal of Lulu as fantasy character, as avatar, as the projection of others’ fantasies, is bolstered by the constant changes of costume, and the use of a screen veiling the rear of the stage, which she is often to be found behind. But whether she is behind that thin veil – which creates a filmic mise-en-scene – or right there with the musicians, she is always ethereal, other. Caldow’s delicate and effective self-choreographed movement work embraces ballet, contemporary, expressive dance, mime, and a kind of sculptural posing, so that she appears to be placed in the scene as a kind of living statue.

Lulu – A Murder Ballad is directed and designed by Mark Holthusen, whose previous work encompasses photography, album artwork, music videos, and stage design for numerous bands. He previously collaborated with the Tiger Lillies on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. His chief scenographic tool is projection. This works best when the images are of a Gothic landscape (tall wonky houses, lit windows, street lamps) or ornate interiors. It is less successful when performer-video interaction is attempted – with the exception of a simple and beautiful image of Lulu holding an umbrella as filmed rain bears down on her. The culminating murder scene uses a beautiful design idea of lighting the proscenium arch with an intense red-and-black projection, although this is marred slightly by an odd cartoonish burst of on-screen blood.

The songs are mostly written in the third person, about Lulu and her abusers/lovers, although some are addressed to her. The imagery is nasty. One abuser of the young Lulu is described as ‘salivating on her dress’ (accompanied by nasty slurping noises by Jacques). And as for Lulu: ‘Does she want it? She doesn’t know anything else.’ he spits. Lulu is, variously, ‘A bird on a wire’ or ‘Just a marionette of a pervert’s desires’ or ‘An animal in a cage.’ There is, amongst the original compositions, a very lovely cover of Cole Porter’s Love For Sale, Jacques’ robust delivery forcing the song away from breezy romanticism into a harsh laying-out of Porter’s disturbing lyrics in all their bare distress: Love for sale / Appetising young love for sale / Love that’s fresh and still unspoiled / Love that’s only slightly soiled / Love for sale.

The most harrowing of the songs – the culmination of the story, the horrific ending of Lulu’s life at the hands of Jack the Ripper– is written in the second person, addressed to her killer. Jacques sits at the piano, and rasps the words out: Do you pray, Jack? Got a crucifix on your wall? Do you think God will be grateful you’ve rid the world of vermin? Do you masturbate over her dead body, Jack, her uterus torn out…? It is truly, terribly, magnificently horrible.

Musically, it’s mostly the usual Tiger Lillies mix. Waltzes fast and slow. A fair few ‘oom pah, oom pah’ jolly bounce-along tunes. A rumba or two. Martyn Jacques moves from standing with uke or accordion (and occasional swanee whistle) to sitting behind his piano. Adrian Stout is solid as a rock on contra bass, and adds interesting layers of sound with musical saw and Theremin. New boy Jonas Golland does a fine job on drums / percussion. There are some interesting and complex sections of music that take it all into a more jazzy and experimental direction. But it is Jacques’s voice that mostly draws our attention – his extraordinary falsetto singing voice, and his horribly gruff spoken voice (as Shig), a mesmerising mix.

Lest we leave the theatre totally destroyed, there is a very lovely comic coda to the story – the murdered Lulu re-appearing pretty as a picture to be serenaded by Jacques with the second cover version of the night. It’s another Cole Porter classic – and it is, of course, My Heart Belongs to Daddy. Sick!

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Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing.