The Tiger Lillies’s Lulu – A Murder Ballad is a blissfully disturbing romp through a provocative classic of European theatre.
My first encounter with the Tiger Lillies’s work was when a friend of mine impulsively put on their song ‘Killer’. For those who aren’t familiar with this work, a shrieking falsetto (accompanied by a pulsing accordion) beautifully considers all the fun activities he could have got up to if he had gone down the path of a serial killer… perhaps it says more about me that I found this vein of work instantly appealing. Therefore, the notion of blending their twisted aesthetics and interpretations with Frank Wedekind’s ‘Lulu plays’ is one I hoped would bring about a brilliantly bizarre cocktail.
The story of Lulu follows her travels through nineteenth century Europe’s various social classes, yo-yoing between aristocracy and poverty, all the while using sexual manipulation as her primary tool. Whilst they were scandalous plays when first performed, Wedekind’s work has remained popular over the last century, been critically considered as both a work of outrageous misogyny (Jack the Ripper makes a brief cameo) and an original work of women’s liberation, all the while maintaining shock value. It is there that the Tiger Lillies’s interpretation comes in.
The stage is stark and bare, aside from the group’s instruments. Any scenery comes from a glorious display of abstract projections, crooked but beautiful, like a Disney rendition of The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari. Through these images, a single dancer takes us through the story of Lulu.
Of course, the dancer is not the star of the production, despite bringing a much-appreciated physical dimension to the piece. The stars are the Lillies, charismatically led by vocalist (and writer and composer) Martyn Jacques, whose songs and arrangements succeed in being both rich and minimalist. The musical talent displayed is also wonderfully versatile; most notably, the playing of a saw is hauntingly perfect for the dark tale.
Lulu – A Murder Ballad is not quite opera nor a musical: it is a song cycle, and the disjointed, divided nature of the songs mirror the writing style of Wedekind. Fortunately, the cycle of songs tells the story in an acute and visceral manner, so that no knowledge of the source texts is required; indeed, a lack of knowledge may be an advantage, leaving you to get caught up in a disorientated whirl.
And this is where the Tiger Lillies succeed: they are carnival and cabaret, in the original senses of the words. Seedy. Underground. Turning the world on its head. Watching them perform, you have to enjoy the show on their terms, which are shamelessly dark, hideously witty and beautifully macabre. Combined with the tale of Lulu, this is a twisted ramble through nineteenth century Europe, with a soundtrack that you won’t shake off easily.
Lulu – A Murder Ballad is playing at the Royal Opera House until 28 November. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Opera House website. Photo: Tom Arber.