arts & books: The writing's off the wall

THEATRE Lulu (adapted by Angela Carter) Harrogate Theatre, Yorkshire
Click to follow
Frank Wedekind was obviously struggling in his Lulu plays and audiences have struggled with them ever since. He wrote several different versions and subsequently other artists, including Alban Berg, GW Pabst and Edward Bond, have made their own re-writings. Part of the struggle lay with early 20th-century censorship, but it's clear that part too was with the intractable intensity of Wedekind's vision of sexual relations and the dissonance of his dramatic form.

Andrew Manley's new staging is of Wedekind's original play, Lulu: A Monster Tragedy, and premieres the version by the late Angela Carter originally commissioned by the National but never performed there. Some remarks from Carter's 1979 book The Sadeian Woman seem to me helpful in finding a way through the play's dramatic difficulties and understanding its thematic concerns. Writing of the "false universals" of myths about sexual relations, Carter cites graffiti as "the most public form of sexual iconography", one that draws its power from the mythic scheme that in all relations between men and women "man proposes and woman is disposed of". It is this kind of "savage denial of the complexity of human relations", presented in the lurid, brutal and often comic outlines of graffiti, that we can see at work in Lulu.

Picked off the streets as a child flower-seller to be seduced and abused by Dr Schoen, Lulu becomes a femme fatale whose power, Carter says, comes not from the mystery of some sultry depths, but from her lightsome transparency - a quality here wonderfully created in Federay Holmes's heroic performance. The show's first image presents Lulu as a mannequin, something to be dressed by men. And so she is, in a series of costumes that accentuate her iridescence. But if one part of the myth is female control of men's desire, the corresponding part is Lulu's eventual destruction by the apotheosis of male hatred, Jack the Ripper.

This concluding scene is unsparingly horrific here. The melodramatic guignol of earlier scenes, including Lulu's shooting of Schoen, can be seen in retrospect as the graffiti artist in entertaining mood before he sets his pen to its most vicious strokes. This is the dissonant, mixed theatrical style that Brecht was to take up and improve upon.

Like all rep theatres, Harrogate must adjust its programming towards a mean. But artistic director Andrew Manley's pragmatism can, as in his juxtaposing of Lulu and Pygmalion, produce interesting ideas, especially since each year he always includes a show as bold as this. For the sake of theatre in the region and further afield, it is to be hoped Harrogate's current funding difficulties can be overcome.

To 3 May. Booking: 01423 502116

Jeffrey Wainwright