The Tiger Lillies’ Blurred Lines
A review of LULU – A Murder Ballad
Recently I had a Hamlet moment. Don’t worry, I didn’t procrastinate for a long time, then go on a killing spree. Let me explain: at the start of Hamlet the court of Elsinore is happy, apart from Hamlet. While everyone else is content and amused, Hamlet is disgusted and outraged in isolation. A ‘Hamlet moment’ happens when everyone around you is satisfied and approving, but you feel you’d rather like to ruin the party by shrieking about unweeded gardens.
The ingredients for The Tiger Lillies’ LULU - A Murder Ballad were all promising. The piece was derived from a Wedekind script in which a prostitute defies social norms as she traipses through her grimy life, ultimately rejecting the world’s squalor and welcoming death at the hands of Jack the Ripper. The show starred a musical trio famed for its darkly ironic lyrics, its charismatic performances, and its varied musical influences. The final element was a talented choreographer and dancer to bring the lyrics to life. What could go wrong?
The Tiger Lillies, with their macabre makeup, and their various instruments laid out on tables, like a surgeon’s (or ripper’s) tools, stood in front of Mark Holthusen’s set: a stretched gauze illuminated and clouded by a series of projections. Holthusen’s previous work with the Tiger Lillies has included animations. Here animations of ever-tightening, steam punk proscenium arches, windows and picture frames, were eerily complimented by a living captive in the form of dancer Laura Caldow. Like a clock-work girl, trapped in the pages of a book, or indeed an album cover, Caldow illustrated the lyrics of the Tiger Lillies’ Murder Ballad.
In the program it is stated that LULU is a story “starring a woman”, but surely the star of this show was Martyn Jacques, apparently the “Criminal Castrato” to his fans, who slobbers, leers, growls, and shrieks this mesmeric ballad? Caldow, or Lulu, acts as wallpaper, moving from pose to delightful pose. Yes, her poses are influenced by flamenco, burlesque, ballet, and Charleston, but they are no more than poses, directed by the puppeteer and lead singer Jacques. Lulu in this production has no more agency than the silhouettes of women in the credits of a Bond film. Like those anonymous women, Caldow gyrated in silhouette as an ornament to the male action, rather than offering a narrative of her own.
Despite, the compelling performances of Jacques and his fellow Tiger Lillies, Adrian Stout and Mike Pickering, and the hypnotic mix of musical styles, there was a problem with LULU. The irony that the program had promised was absent. Perhaps the wrong kind of irony is conjured when three men sing about how a woman was treated like a marionette for male gratification while, in the background, an actual woman twirls like a wooden musical box doll, dressed in a burlesque -Pierrot playsuit, artfully tailored to emphasis the shape of her buttocks.
Those who are able to decipher an ironic statement in this well-polished and accomplished performance will certainly enjoy it. However, for me, Lulu’s courting of death at the hands of Jack the Ripper came across not as a statement of her rejection of patriarchal desire, nor as a pursuit of her own sexual gratification, but rather as a face-painted, Steam-punk version of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines.
The reviews of this production have been very positive (although the Guardian’s Lyn Gardener gives a mixed review), yet I found the production downright offensive. Perhaps I was just being insanely uncool and prudish? For me, the presentation of this tale of child abuse, prostitution, and murder for sexual gratification in the guise of a humourous ditty, with a serving of an attractive woman as window dressing on the side, was quite overwhelmingly sexist. If the narrative of Lulu’s dance had offered an alternative voice, or if she had appeared to have some kind of agency, or if there had been less emphasis on the idea that she ‘wanted it’, then perhaps the production would have succeeded in making some kind of critique of this abusive cycle.
People said to me “relax and stop reading too much into it!” much as Gertrude says to Hamlet “Thou know’st tis common”. It is indeed common to see this kind of misogyny in our culture, lazily excused as an edgy and ironic statement. How many times have you sat in a cinema, or a theatre, or at a bar and had a Hamlet moment? How many times have you looked around and thought that what you saw was an unweeded garden of misogyny, possessed by all things rank and gross in nature? Well if you have ever had this experience, you may also have felt slightly mad, and, if you voiced your opinion, many of your friends will have responded to you as if you were slightly mad. After all, even Hamlet himself, if he were real, would probably have loved LULU. But Hamlet, taking it further than the Tiger Lillies themselves, would probably have viewed Lulu’s fate as just dessert for the frailty and falsehood of painting, jigging and ambling women. With this kind of literary heritage, what could go wrong?
For more information on Lulu – A Murder Ballad and other forthcoming shows visit their site.