The more ambitious of the two geographically at least is the Almeida. Last year it produced Shakespeare's Richard II and Coriolanus starring Ralph Fiennes, not on its own stage but at the derelict Gainsborough Film Studios. Now, forced to leave their 300-seat Islington base while $6 million in renovations are carried out, Kent and McDiarmid have spent $1.2 million fixing up a long-closed bus station at King's Cross as an alternative home. The result is one of the most unusual and invigorating spaces in London.
Architects Roger Watts and Steve Tomkins have created an enormous (25-m-wide) proscenium stage set in a raked auditorium built of corrugated iron and steel girders. The white-brick bar area, bathed in green and red lights, has the quality of a nightclub vibrant, raw and exciting.
If only the same could be said of the theater's opening production, Lulu (due to visit Washington in June). Casting 24-year-old actress Anna Friel as Frank Wedekind's legendary anti-heroine seemed to make great sense. Friel shot to British fame in 1994, principally for providing one half of the first lesbian kiss on a mainstream television soap, Brookside. Despite having appeared in 11 films, Friel has yet to enjoy the sort of celluloid success attained by her British contemporary Rachel Weisz, whose Enemy at the Gates has just opened, let alone the stellar heights of Catherine Zeta-Jones.
In 1999, however, Friel scored a big hit on Broadway in Patrick Marber's love-and-sex play Closer, and the stage seemed set for her emergence as a bona fide star. And Lulu, the tale of a woman who manipulates and is finally destroyed by men the selfsame saga that made Louise Brooks a sex symbol in the 1929 film version seems perfect for Friel's stage and screen persona.
Yet Wedekind's play is deeply complex. His title character has been sexually molested from childhood by her father and her adored high-society patron Dr. Schöning, and sex is the only form of communication she knows. For most of the play Lulu is gleefully happy in her seductive power. Schöning and Lulu end up dead, one shot, the other torn apart by Jack the Ripper.
It is Wedekind's wildest fantasy and his darkest fear.
Lulu is supposed to be a force of nature, seduction incarnate, but Friel just doesn't have the charisma. What she does have, from her first entrance in a figure-hugging scarlet dress, is great physical presence. Happiest lolling on her back on one of a succession of increasingly extravagant chaise-longues, she swivels her long legs like antennae. But when she speaks, her flat, ordinary delivery comes as a shock. Only in the grim final scene, when Lulu is reduced to working as a prostitute in a London cellar, does Friel let her natural Northern accent come through and seem suddenly energized. Too late.
Having provided the audience with that super-wide stage, director Jonathan Kent never uses its cinematic sweep. Instead he seems content to provide colorful backdrops and move the action swiftly along. Kent's one clever touch is the lurking presence of Jack the Ripper, for whom Lulu constantly waits. When they finally meet, she is charmed. He is her dream date, as well as her nightmare. It is the final paradox of a play in which Wedekind poses tantalising questions: Is Lulu a monster, and who uses whom? Unfortunately, Kent and Friel don't have the answers.