Through a Glass Darkly, Almeida, London<br/>Lulu, Gate, London<br/>Women, Power and Politics, Tricycle, London

New adaptation is a poor cousin of the cinema classic, losing its understated menace &ndash; and some key passages

Reviewed,Kate Bassett
Sunday 20 June 2010 00:00

Martin calls his wife "my dear little girl". Being a full-grown woman, Karin finds it faintly weird. But in Through a Glass Darkly – the Almeida's new adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's cinema art-house classic – Karin has just been released from a mental hospital. She's prone to relapses, hears voices, and gives way to fevered, religious-erotic fantasies.

"Is it that my illness has made me a child?" broods Ruth Wilson's Karin as she yearns for stability yet shuns the cosseting love offered by Justin Salinger's Martin. She's principally obsessed by her long-absent father's homecoming, naively hoping Ian McElhinney's David will now prove a devoted parent, rather than a self-distancing novelist.

Wilson's Karin can turn on a psychotic sixpence with her adolescent brother, Max, as well. One minute, she is a sweet older sister. The next, she's incestuously predatory. What's most peculiar, though, is how dull Bergman's dysfunctional family drama has become in Michael Attenborough's production. This is a poor cousin of the 1961 movie in almost every way.

For sure, the stony beach and dilapidated holiday home in the monochrome film were gloomily austere. However, each shot was beautifully framed. On stage, designer Tom Scutt's concrete-grey chamber – ill-lit by Colin Grenfell – only looks drab.

As for the dialogue, the promised adaptation by Andrew Upton has been ditched. The substitute script by Jenny Worton – a relatively inexperienced writer – pads out Bergman's spartan dialogue pointlessly. Elsewhere, key passages are unceremoniously axed, not least Karin's climactic ravings about how she has seen God at last, but he's a monstrous black spider. I guess pulling that off without provoking titters was just too challenging.

Wilson and Salinger do try to convey fraught intensity, but Worton and Attenborough don't seem to grasp how Bergman paced the narrative to create understated menace. Dimitri Leonidas's Max isn't persuasively screwed up, and McElhinney's closing paternal advice is cloying.

In Frank Wedekind's turn-of-the-century, radical sex tragedy Lulu, the titular fille fatale leaves a trail of destruction. An apparently irresistible floozie, she works her way through a string of husbands, from her underage teenage years on. Each possessive spouse catches her having an affair and dies horribly (from cardiac arrest, suicide or a murderous smoking revolver).

She steps hastily over the body, a heartless monster moving on to her next victim. At least, that's how the male protagonists see it, whenever their ardour twists into loathing. In retort, she blames them for making her who she is, and it's clear she was abused as a child.

The Gate's new updated version – adapted and directed by Anna Ledwich (co-produced by Headlong) – starts out in a scruffy artist's studio. Helen Goddard's makeshift set – all rough planks, scaffolding and plastic sheeting – is oddly beautiful, softly side-lit by Emma Chapman. It also has startling hidden depths, with screens ripped away to reveal receding chambers.

It must be said, you get little sense of Lulu brushing with high society here. And the distancing effect in her death scene comes perilously close to voyeurism, when she's seen, by now a low-life prostitute, through a far-off window, being slit open by a silent ripper under a flickering neon light.

There is a basic shortcoming in this staging, though: half the audience must stand up if they want to see any of the recumbent canoodling downstage. Nonetheless, Sinead Matthews's pint-sized Lulu is interesting casting, disturbingly like a little girl imitating MTV tarts, or Marilyn Monroe. Her repeated striking of near-pornographic poses becomes almost a nervous tic as she lolls around in unglamorous purple tights and pumps.

Flicking between callous materialism, panic and seemingly genuine love, this Lulu is made to seem mercurially complex, rather than – as is more often the case – an incoherent character randomly stitched together, by Wedekind, from bits of different women he knew.

Ledwich also gets superb performances from Paul Copley as Lulu's creepy old dad, and from Sean Campion as the paedophile, Schoning. So, she's one to watch.

Unfortunately, the Tricycle's latest epic cycle – nine shorts by female playwrights, collectively entitled Women, Power and Politics – isn't altogether storming. The historical breadth is there, with playlets ranging over Elizabeth I, Irish suffragettes, Greenham Common, and a wannabe student-union president dirty-dancing on video to win votes.

Nonetheless, some of the topics are well-worn. Under Indhu Rubasingham's direction, the writing and acting is uneven, with often feeble satire. Still, Handbagged by Moira Buffini – imagined mutual reminiscences by Margaret Thatcher and the Queen – is sharply witty.

And Zinnie Harris's portrait of an all-male interview panel, running down their shortlist of female candidates for a corporate post, is brilliantly subtle, a droll and penetrating insight into not-quite-extinguished sexism, and group dynamics.

'Through a Glass Darkly' (020-7359 4404) to 30 Jul; 'Lulu' (020-7229 0706) to 10 Jul; 'Women, Power and Politics' (020-7328 1000) to 17 Jul

Next Week:

Kate Bassett catches Sam Mendes's Tempest and As You Like It at the Old Vic

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