Year of Shakespeare: The Rape of LucreceTragedyYear of Shakespeare

  • FionnualaONeill

This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


The Rape of Lucrece – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh International Festival, 22nd September

By Fionnuala O’Neill, University of Edinburgh

Singer Camille O’Sullivan presumably did not expect her show suddenly to become so topical. The Rape of Lucrece’s opening night at the Edinburgh Festival occurred during the week in which US Congressman Todd Akin caused outrage with his remarks concerning “legitimate” rape. Lucrece is a powerful and timely reminder to its audiences of how even the most appallingly violent act of rape may still become for its victim a source, not just of pain and anger, but of searing shame and unjustified yet torturing guilt.

Adapted by Elizabeth Freestone, Lucrece became something like a dramatic recital, set to music and part-spoken part-sung by O’Sullivan while Feargal Murray accompanied on piano. The score was entirely original, composed by Murray and O’Sullivan, and reflected many of O’Sullivan’s usual musical influences. Her standard repertoire ranges from jazz to cabaret and rock, from Jacques Brel to Radiohead. Her shows are striking not just for her singing voice but her ability to perform in speech and song, ranging easily from humour to vulnerability, sexual power to sad-eyed experience. Accustomed to performing as a singer rather than an actress, she did occasionally struggle to get the lines of Lucrece across. But it was fundamentally this chameleon-like capacity that allowed her to portray the very different voices of the poem with remarkable poignancy and command.

O’Sullivan introduced the show herself, rather in the style of a bardic performance. The lighting was very dim and the stage largely monochrome, with black piano, stacks of white papers, and heavily-tarnished mirrors (recalling the poem’s mirror sequence, which was one of comparatively few cuts made). A little pair of white evening shoes, sitting neatly and rather pathetically side-by-side, stood sometimes for Lucrece while O’Sullivan performed the part of the narrator. Behind them, an enormous, battered and threatening pair of black military boots represented Tarquin. When O’Sullivan emerged on-stage she wore a black military overcoat, removing it at the moment of the rape to reveal a white shift dress underneath. The coat itself was briefly used as a prop, becoming the body of the struggling victim on the floor and then used brutally to stifle her cries. The lighting was used to wonderful effect, periodically dimming and darkening the mood. Striking illusions were occasionally created, such as a beam of light from an imaginary bedroom door as it opened under Tarquin’s hand, or a great black shadow on the mirror as the white-clad Lucrece stood facing it after the rape.

Switching between roles allowed the show to bring out the poem’s sometimes discomfiting voyeurism. As the singer circled the shoes, softly singing of Lucrece’s physical beauty, her fingertips brushed an invisible body as if exploring an artwork. But there was an uncomfortably grey area in this gaze – in which the audience were clearly invited to participate – between tenderness and voyeurism, as she later shifted effortlessly into Tarquin’s lust-filled perspective. The poem opens by bewailing Collatine’s unwise boasting about his wife, the act which first incites Tarquin. As Lucrece’s vulnerable body became the object of male power struggles, this narrative tenderness verged uneasily on complicity.

The music was, for the most part, the making of the show, bringing out the poem’s beauty and its violence. Ripplingly soft and gentle during the early passages, it rose ominously as Tarquin’s rage and lust swayed him, as if echoing his swelling passions and drumming heartbeat. The passionate songs allowed O’Sullivan to make full use of her powerful voice. At times they recalled the intensity of Brel’s ballads, one of her major influences, but there were also occasional moments at which they drifted towards West End-style numbers, as if Lucrece were performing Sweet Charity and Tarquin, Judd from Oklahoma! This seemed musically inappropriate for the poem’s seriousness; uncomfortably insipid music for such intensely tragic rage and despair.

However, for the most part the score was superbly deployed. One of the finest effects was the strength and power it lent to Lucrece’s voice after the rape, especially as the audience was clearly full of O’Sullivan’s regular fans, and her Lucrece was thus “ghosted” by traces of past performances in which other powerful or suffering female voices feature. The storytelling was courageously physical, but it was the music that gave Lucrece (“Philomel”) an ability to express passion, despair and above all rage that a spoken performance would be hard-pressed to match. Particularly striking was the swelling anger in the music as she reproached Collatine for his fateful boasting, before turning to reproach her body bitterly for its self-betrayal. It was a powerful portrayal of the intense pressures exerted upon the victim by such coercive physical and emotional intimidation, resulting in corrosive guilt at the unjustified idea that she herself might somehow bear responsibility.

Two particularly poignant moments occurred near the end of the show; the first when Lucrece encountered Collatine on his return, now distanced and alienated by her experiences and her conflicted passions. The second occurred after Lucrece’s suicide, at which red petals fell from the flies upon the discarded clothing which now represented her body. The singer’s voice deepened to lower alto range and became throatier, her body suddenly stilling while the music slowed, as she performed Lucretius’ lament for his daughter straight to the crumpled heap on the floor. After a very physical performance, and in particular after the increasingly uncomfortable voyeurism of the poem, this controlled portrayal of Lucretius’ dignified grief came as a relief. His was the sole voice to display no voyeurism or objectification towards Lucrece; the only one who seemed to recognise and mourn Lucrece as Lucrece, rather than as sexual object, property or battleground. By contrast, Collatine’s subsequent lament was declamatory, delivered with wide-flung arms to the audience rather than to “Lucrece” herself. It was a timely reminder of the degree to which, in the politicised discourse of rape and violence, suffering female bodies too often remain at the level of stage props for political arguments between men, subject to a failure of recognition in and as themselves.

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To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

Author: FionnualaONeill

Fionnuala O'Neill is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. Her doctoral research focuses on Shakespeare and dramatic genre, in particular the rhetorical and dramaturgical motifs of loss, absence and mournfulness in the plays.