ADAPTATIONS / Going back to their roots: Wedekind's Lulu? Du Maurier's Trilby? You'd be lucky, as Nick Curtis reports

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The Independent Culture
When Nick Philippou talks about Frank Wedekind's 1892 'sex tragedy' Lulu, it's as if he's talking about a new play. This is because his Cambridge Theatre Company production of Lulu, currently on tour, has never been seen before. 'This version, which we know as The Monster Tragedy, has been locked away for 100 years,' he says. 'When Wedekind wrote it his publisher said that if anyone saw it he'd go straight to prison.' Having served a stretch for publishing a satirical poem in a magazine, Wedekind was chastened enough to rewrite his indictment of the sexual hypocrisy which destroys the innocently carnal child Lulu as a diluted two-parter, Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box.

Philippou believes that the perception of Lulu as a lethal sexual icon is a distortion brought about by Wedekind's own 'compromised and confused' rewrites, bad translations, Alban Berg's opera and, chiefly, G W Pabst's 1928 film Pandora's Box, which immortalised Louise Brooks as the fatally beautiful Lulu. Philippou returned to the original draft (reassembled from scattered fragments in various archives by Hartmut Vincon in the late Eighties) to find the 'real' woman behind the icon: 'It's like looking at a painting covered in layers of dirt and wanting to clean it down to the very bright thing that once existed.'

The task facing Nancy Meckler, director and co-adapter of Shared Experience's touring production of Trilby and Svengali, was perhaps harder. George Du Maurier's novel Trilby, first published in serial form in 1894, also cast a critical eye over sexual obsession in bohemian Europe: it tells of an artist's model whose bourgeois lover, Billee, is repelled by her career; she begins to hate herself and falls under the spell of the hypnotic manipulator Svengali, who moulds her into a singer. While Lulu was immortalised by Brooks, Trilby - thanks to a hat-maker's shrewd marketing idea - became identified with a felt hat, while Svengali became a catch-all term for every artistic manipulator from Roger Vadim to Malcolm McLaren. The original story and characters became obscured as the names mutated into dictionary definitions.

Researching Trilby with the actor and writer David Fielder, Meckler discovered that Du Maurier's story had been corrupted almost at birth. The first stage adaptation, written by Paul Potter and performed to wild acclaim at London's Haymarket by Beerbohm Tree in 1895 (he built Her Majesty's Theatre with the profits), 'took complete liberties with the book. He used all the characters but put them in a formulaic melodrama plot of the time.' The appropriation of Trilby as a vehicle for a grandstanding actor playing the evil master set a trend: it was filmed as Svengali in 1931 and again in 1954, with Trilby playing second fiddle to the flashing eyes and overblown effects of John Barrymore and Donald Wolfit. Meckler and Fielder also read the script for the 1975 television series by the playwright Hugh Whitemore, and found that it portrayed Trilby as an idealised love-object for whom Svengali and Billee compete.

This is not to say that either Meckler or Philippou are presenting the original 1890s texts exactly as written. 'If you're adapting a book it's best just to use it as a trigger for a theatre piece,' Meckler says. She points out that Trilby concerns itself primarily with the thoughts and feelings of Billee, with Trilby's movements often recorded in synopsis: 'I became interested in whether this piece could be about her rather than the men trying to get her.

'There's also a problem with the book in that the depiction of Svengali is very anti-Semitic. There's a lot of stuff about him not knowing what a bath is; you know, the filthy foreigner. The film versions tended to state this and then ignore it.' Fielder unearthed Extracts from the Diary of Moritz Svengali, written by Alfred Welch in 1897, which retold the entire story from his point of view. Thus he and Meckler set out to place Svengali's character in a historical context, as well as to bring Trilby to the foreground. Meckler admits that Trilby and Svengali is a subjective adaptation of the novel, but believes they have got closer to Du Maurier's intentions by restoring his moral edge.

Subjectivity has also dogged English versions of Wedekind's play. Previous adapters struggled to fit Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box into a single evening and were hard pressed, Philippou says, to make sense of 'a play about sex from which all the sex has been cut. The original, uncensored impulse is much purer.' Even so, a translator was needed, and the playwright Edward Bond was chosen. 'While other translators tended to remove subtle, 'problematic' ideas, this was like a perfect team where they absolutely understood each other,' says Philippou.

Both Meckler and Philippou feel that Lulu and Trilby are relevant today without contrived updating. Philippou points out that Lulu, who becomes a prostitute at the age of seven, is a victim of child abuse. What destroys her is the repression of her own sexuality and that of the men who desire her. 'This is a deeply humanist approach to a society which sees the answer to emergent sexuality as containment.'

Meckler sees Trilby, too, as a symbol of innocence. 'The cue I took was the description of her as somebody who knew no fear or shame, but who learns them from the men in her life. Such innocence is that of an adult who has managed to remain a child. We still revere that archetype of personal freedom; but the wish to change what we love is also a perennial theme.'

What, though, would be the reactions of the authors to these new productions? Meckler laughs nervously: 'I hope he would be thrilled to think that from his book we had created something, er . . . other.' Philippou is more forthright. 'There's every possibility that at the end of his life Wedekind would not have wanted this version to go on,' he says, 'but the man who wrote it in 1892 would. I know we're doing Wedekind a favour.'

'Lulu': Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds 20- 24 Oct; Lilian Baylis, London 27 Oct-14 Nov.

'Trilby and Svengali': Nuffield, Southampton 13 Oct-7 Nov; Arts Theatre Belfast 9-14 Nov; Theatre Hafren, Newtown, Wales 20-21 Nov; Cockpit Theatre, London NW8 25 Nov-12 Dec.

(Photograph omitted)