Theater Review: The Rape of Lucrece, at the Royal Shakespeare Company

06/27/2014

When attending a Shakespeare play, one generally has an idea what to expect; at least if you’re familiar with the play or its plot. Before attending last night’s production of The Rape of Lucrece , at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre, I had no clue as to how the performance would be. The Rape of Lucrece is one of Shakespeare’s long poems, not a play, and wasn’t written for performance. Written in 1594, early in Shakespeare’s career, it tells the story, based on Ovid and Livy, of Tarquin’s rape of Lucrece, and her subsequent feelings of guilt. The poem is violent, and contains political overtones, but it also expresses the feelings of a man and a woman in a situation where each has some responsibility and guilt for what transpires.

Performed solo by Camille O’Sullivan, with piano accompaniment by Feargal Murray, this is an astonishing evening of theater. Ms. O’Sullivan alternates between reciting the poem and singing parts of it; all the songs are first-person sections of the poem by Lucrece. She is an arresting performer, able to express a broad register of emotion, while inhabiting both characters.

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The music alternates among a number of styles, starting with a mellow piano accompaniment as Ms. O’Sullivan talks, and changing into songs at times. The songs reflected Ms. O’Sullivan and Mr. Murray’s musical influences: Nick Cave, Patti Smith, Kurt Weill, Jacques Brel and others. But Ms. O’Sullivan owned these songs; they were’t mere copies of other styles.

This is a very physical performance, with Ms. O’Sullivan taking advantage of the Swan’s thrust stage to get close to the audience, striding across the stage at times, looking at nearly every person outside the stage. The set is minimal, just a piano, a few stacks of paper, and some interesting lighting that is used to delineate Lucrece’s bedroom.

The text is essentially that of Shakespeare, with some cuts. About 30% of the poem was cut; mostly a large section about Lucrece contemplating a painting after the rape. There are, said director Elizabeth Freestone, in a discussion after the performance, two lines that they added to the text.

The idea for this production came from the director, who had wanted to stage the poem for some time, and who chanced upon an evening of song by Camille O’Sullivan, and felt that she would be the ideal person in this role. Ms. O’Sullivan explained how scared she was to first perform this in the Swan Theatre in 2011. Since then, they have taken the performance on the road to several countries, and return for a brief repeat engagement at the Swan, before heading to London.

This was a riveting performance from beginning to end. Camille O’Sullivan is a arresting performer, able to dominate the stage for 75 minutes without flagging. Unfortunately, the Swan Theatre was more empty than full; if you’re in or near Stratford-Upon-Avon, don’t miss this production, which runs through July 4.