“One of these days I’d like to be murdered,” muses Lulu (Anna Friel) midway through the Frank Wedekind play of the character’s same name, and it can’t now come as news to report that one of modern drama’s most restless and prismatic heroines ultimately gets her wish. Far more revelatory is the renewed power of a tricky play, presented as the inaugural production of the Almeida’s new and welcome space amid the sometimes forbidding environs of King’s Cross: an area of London seething with enough real-life Lulus to allow for an impromptu third act as the audience makes its way home. (The Almeida’s home theater in Islington is out of action for 18 months while it is rebuilt.)
The Kennedy Center gets the production next — Washington, D.C., is its only skedded American stop — and it’s hard to imagine an ocean diluting the evening’s ability to disturb. Let’s put it this way: If you thought “Lulu” in the 21st century began and ended with Juliette Binoche’s woozy Louise Brooks-ish Oscar outfit, you’ve got a surprise or two in store.
Who, exactly, is Lulu? What do her desires represent? The answers span a spectrum as diverse as the European capitals in which she finds herself and as varied as her downwardly mobile social status over time. Suffice it to say that director Jonathan Kent and his more than able star — Anna Friel, heading a staging that had originally been talked about for Binoche — perform perhaps the greatest service to Lulu (and “Lulu”) by refusing to judge her. “Are you angel or devil?” asks Dr. Schoning (Alan Howard), one of her numerous husbands, in an attempt to capture a siren’s inconstant allure. Lulu’s answer, delivered with the requisite flatness: “I’m nothing. I’m me.”
The century-old play, for its part, poses something of a formidable challenge, and it defeated this very theater company a decade or so ago in a separate version of a text that has itself been ceaselessly teased by Wedekind and others since its 1894 preem. (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer was the Almeida’s lead last time around.)
But Kent has always liked working on a broad canvas — too broad, if some of the overpitched supporting perfs are any gauge — while allowing a star an unexpected chance to shine. (Who else would have thought of pairing Ralph Fiennes in “Richard II” and “Coriolanus”?)
Friel won’t be the Lulu of everyone’s dreams, partly because she refuses (thank heavens) to play the Playboy bunny. Instead, she’s an intriguing blank — a kind of Rorschach test of the brothel (her “natural habitat,” or so we’re told) — who reveals as much about the men in her midst as she ever does about herself. Friel, to that end, projects a child-woman who can be both the innocent and the provocatrice, the kittenish belle of a glittering yet dangerous ball and a voluptuary of life’s baser instincts. As for love, that four-letter word motivates her far less than the primal one that is need, which, in turn, propels Lulu down a libidinous pathway toward her ultimate seducer — death.
For someone so resistant to categorization, Lulu has inspired numerous other creators keen to have their own go at charting her demise — from the 1928 G.W. Pabst film “Pandora’s Box,” with Brooks in the lead, to Alban Berg’s devastating 1937 opera, which here finds its own shimmering echoes in Jonathan Dove’s original score. Working from a literal translation by Wes Williams, Nicholas Wright’s current version conflates Wedekind’s unwieldy two-play version (not for nothing was “Lulu” originally subtitled “A Monster Tragedy”) while retaining its tragic arc: a trajectory begun in the world of aesthetes and salons and concluded amid the lower orders of a dank and merciless London.
Friel trod not dissimilar terrain several seasons ago in her Broadway debut in “Closer,” playing what could be thought of as a modern Lulu — in Patrick Marber’s play, she was a lap dancer, not an artist’s model — who flirts with the very carnality that leads to her destruction. Less self-consciously the gamin and eager to please than she seemed on the New York stage, the young actress charts a difficult course that falters only in the Paris sequence opening the second act, when the play seems to spin out of this production’s reach. (On the other hand, it’s hard to deny the lurid fascination that accompanies Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege, playing the Countess of Geschwitz, calling out, “Trample me, crush me,” in an orgy of self-abasement.)
The cast doesn’t always avoid the baroque rhetorical tendencies that have become a Kent trademark — Oliver Milburn is especially ripe, playing a young suitor in competition with his father for Lulu’s affections — though the first half does find an eerie-voiced Howard in delicious form as the aspish newspaper editor who passes violently through Lulu’s abortive existence.
The extinction of that life makes for a galvanic final scene whereby designer Rob Howell’s frosted fin-de-siecle Europe gives way to a contemporary English underworld whose forbidding gray is illuminated for keeps in Mark Henderson’s lighting. “It’s dark.” “It’ll get darker,” goes an exchange not involving Lulu that nonetheless anticipates the prostitute’s demise, given the arrival of a client — Peter Sullivan’s ominously spoken Jack (as in the Ripper) — who drives a hard and murderous bargain. So does the swift, painterly tableau concluding the evening that lasts barely a second but leaves an impact to send responsive theatergoers shuddering into the night.