This version of Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece has already been performed in Scotland, Australia, Ireland, Holland and Brazil. It now comes to the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of the Festival of Love.
Many theatregoers are familiar with the plays written by Stratford’s most famous son, but fewer will profess an intimate knowledge of his two long narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and TheRape of Lucrece. The latter is a dark rhymed tale, based on the classical writings of Livy and Ovid. It recounts how the chaste and honourable Lucrece, wife of Collatine, was raped in her own home by Tarquin, son of the Roman king, and how this defilement leads her to the decision to take her own life. In history it also led to the banishment of the Tarquins and the changing of the government from kings to consuls.
The poem occupies 1855 lines while the actual violation can almost be missed in the reading. The narrative is taken up with the psychological arguments of the protagonists. First Tarquin is given voice debating and arguing his desires with himself, and then Lucrece is left in moral and emotional disarray as she struggles with her conscience and the stain that is left on her character, and which will ruin the good name of her family.
Camille O’Sullivan and Feargal Murray perform the poem on a small stage; she by turns relating, re-enacting and singing, he accompanying her on the piano. As an interpreter of narrative songs the concept of performing a narrative poem accompanied by music is an interesting idea with some of the songs devised purely for this production and not taken from the poet’s words. However I found the repeated refrain referring to Lucrece’s azure veins, alabaster skin, coral lips and snow white dimpled chin work extremely well as they relate closely to the blazon employed by Elizabethan writers.
I know the poem well, but found the diction, whether spoken or narrated, rather unclear at times and this detracted from the storyline.
O’Sullivan initially appears in a black military-style greatcoat, which is later torn off during the rape scene, leaving her in a white shift. Two pairs of footwear, one of black army boots and the other of white court shoes, represent the violator and the violated, and the clever use of lighting draws our attention to a square portion of the stage which represents the marital bed where Lucrece ceases to be a chaste wife. Imaginative use is made of the lighting, especially when dark, menacing shadows (representing Tarquin) are cast and when a silhouette of a huddled, dejected woman is projected onto the floor.
Shakespeare makes it clear that the crux of the story is Pure Chastity is rifled of her store, And Lust, the thief, far poorer than before. Somehow this point failed for me in the current production. The actual ravishment is depicted graphically by the thrusting of the aggressor’s coat, after which the victim flails about helplessly, but the original narrative makes it easy to miss the rape, which is virtually glossed over.
I am by no means a traditionalist when it comes to performances of Shakespeare, but this did not work for me. However I felt I was in the minority as the performance was greeted enthusiastically by the audience, with O’Sullivan in turn placing two fingers in her mouth to whistle back to the audience.