Originally published on The Bardathon, 2 April 2011.
The Rape of Lucrece was last staged at the Swan in 2006, as part of the Complete Works Festival. That production, directed by Greg Doran, was a relatively traditional reading of the poem, featuring five actors standing in a line with books in hand, each taking one of the poem’s “parts” and sharing narration. It was a great event, but it felt partial, a work-in-progress that never developed into a full-blown project.
This year’s production, by contrast, was the first production to come out of the new “RSC Studio”, an artist-development project that gives performers the opportunity to freely develop new ideas, the best of which will be produced on the RSC’s stages. For this, the experienced RSC director Elizabeth Freestone collaborated with Camille O’Sullivan, the singer/actress, and pianist Feargal Murray to create a contained, complete and measured response to Shakespeare’s poem.
It was extraordinary.
Yes, an eighty minute monologue from a single performer could sometimes be a little tiring. Yes, it lacked the multivocality and variety of a full production. And yes, the music might not have been to everyone’s taste. Frankly though, I don’t care. This was O’Sullivan’s show, and she delivered one of the most spellbinding and committed performances I’ve ever been privileged to see, well worth one of my extremely rare standing ovations, not least for having memorised the entire poem.
Murray sat at a grand piano on stage and accompanied much of the performance with a mixture of background score and foregrounded showpieces. Drawing on Irish influences, the score was a mixture of melancholic melody and crashing dramatic chords. An essential part of the performance, Murray’s piano guided the poem’s movements, creating atmospheres that gently divided the story into thematic and emotional sections, and gave O’Sullivan a field to play in.
This was entirely O’Sullivan’s show, however. She entered, clad in a long black jacket and with her hair pulled tightly back, and began to tell the story of the poem in modern language, introducing the story gradually to the Roman background. A pair of woman’s shoes were placed downstage right, symbolising Lucrece; while she placed a pair of soldier boots upstage left for Tarquin, her embodied presence for the performance’s first half. In her beautiful Irish accent, she drifted into the poem proper (reasonably edited, but complete enough to render her ability with the lines a real marvel), shifting between Tarquin and a narrator figure.
O’Sullivan’s strength was an emotional intensity that kept the audience captivated for the entire eighty minutes, and continued to pull people back even after slow moments. Both performing Tarquin and speaking about Tarquin, she brought out a humanity in the rapist that both shocked and compelled. Agonising over his/her intended actions, weighing up the consequences and growing in sexual passion, this was a Tarquin one could believe in; a monstrous figure of pure emotion. The lighting design of Vince Herbert was key here – rarely has there been a lighting pattern so dramatically involved in the action, changing hue and intensity according to the tenor of O’Sullivan’s voice.
After the moment of the rape itself, O’Sullivan threw herself more physically into the performance. She took off her coat, revealing a white shift beneath, and shook out her hairpins to let her hair fall about her shoulders, and lay on the floor in an agony of post-violation pain and anguish. Gradually she took control over herself once more, taking up the longer half of the poem in Lucrece’s person and addressing the heavens, the audience and herself in a spirit of recrimination, guilt and anger.
The poem was partly spoken and partly sung. O’Sullivan’s singing voice was sublime, not dissimilar to Martha Wainwright or a female Damien Rice. In moments of high drama she thumped the floor with her bare heels as she sang, bringing a percussive dynamic to her singing which rammed home the extent of her feeling. While these louder moments were important in propelling the narrative forward, just as powerful were the quieter lyrics, particularly as she resolved to kill herself. With the piano stripped back to a minimum, O’Sullivan gazed at an unseen fixed point and gave herself over to death, a tear rolling down her cheek.
O’Sullivan donned a black scarf as she prepared to face her husband, which was lowered following her death as the returning men grieved her and red petals fell from the gods. As she spoke the final lines of the poem, she openly wept, a genuine emotion made all too clear by her grateful and entirely honest reception of the standing ovation that followed. As a tour de force reading of the poem and a personal journey, this was sublime, and a fantastic way to launch the public outputs of the RSC Studio.