By: William Shakespeare
Directed by: Elizabeth Freestone
Venue: Swan Theatre
Date: 1st April 2011
This was a mesmerising performance by Camille O’Sullivan, accompanied by Feargal Murray. We didn’t see her cabaret act during the ramp up events last year, but I’m very glad we caught this wonderful version of The Rape Of Lucrece tonight. There was a rehearsed reading of the poem during the Complete Works Festival in 2006, but this was far, far better in my view.
The set was very simple. The piano was under the stage balcony on the left, and there were several large stacks of paper on the stage, one forward of the piano and another on the front corner to our right. A pair of white ladies’ shoes was placed towards the other front corner. As she entered, Camille was carrying a pair of men’s boots, and as she began to weave her spell, telling us of the writing of the poem, she moved around the stage, placing the boots back right, forming a diagonal with the other pair. These items of footwear represented the two main characters in this piece, Tarquin and Lucrece, and were spot lit at various times to highlight the story. Camille herself was dressed in a thigh-length black coat, under which she wore a long white top over black leggings. Her feet were bare, and her hair was scooped up quite tightly at the back.
After describing the context of the poem’s creation, she then started into the story of the poem. Her delivery was so good, that I’m not sure at what point she started using the poem itself, but soon she was well into it, and her gestures and intonation got across many aspects of the lines that I wasn’t able to catch directly, through missing the odd word or just because of the complexity of the language. I would have sworn I saw the candle, and the doors, and the knife with my own eyes – there were no such props, just her skill and the wonderful language.
The story was the same as with the rehearsed reading, of course. The Roman nobles, away at war, boast of their wives, and one, Lucrece’s husband, outdoes the others for bragging. Fortunately for him, when the men all sneak back to Rome, his wife is the only one they find being virtuous – the others are all having fun, which is not what Roman wives are meant to do when their husband’s backs are turned. Tarquin, inflamed with passion for Lucrece’s beauty, returns later to visit her, and despite the feeble flickering of his conscience, rapes her. Distraught, she has a good long rant and rave, then summons her husband back home so he can witness her suicide and revenge the wrong which Tarquin has inflicted on her honour, which he does.
It’s a difficult story, not least because of the rape, but here it was staged with great sensitivity, not overdoing the suffering and brutality, but showing it in a way that reflected the poetry of the language, allowing our imaginations to skip over the sordid details to experience the emotional and mental pain caused by such an act. From time to time, when the characters themselves were speaking, she moved into song, using the poem’s lines, of course, but adding a tune and a delivery which emphasised the meaning, sometimes harsh, sometimes pure and sweet. With her bare feet often drumming out a rhythm, these aspects combined to produce the magical effect which only theatre can provide.
There were several vivid moments of staging that impressed me. Firstly, when Tarquin was sneaking towards Lucrece’s bedroom, she used a closing hand gesture in the direction of each of three lights, and the control room obligingly turned them off, all at a menacingly gentle pace. Once in Lucrece’s room, she prowled around the bed, describing Tarquin’s growing lust, or rage, as the poem has it. Then, as the poem continued, she removed the black coat, and used it to demonstrate Tarquin smothering Lucrece’s cries as he began to rape her. As she was doing this, she gradually turned over to become Lucrece, unpinning her hair, and with several moaning cries she indicated Lucrece’s agony at her violation. It was a very moving scene, not difficult to watch or embarrassing, but painful all the same.
With the rape over, the poem focuses on Lucrece’s feelings and her thoughts, especially her increasing desire to kill herself to redeem her honour. In the Complete Works version, I found myself annoyed that she regarded her blood as tainted and dishonoured by Tarquin’s actions. Tonight, it made more sense as part of her emotional reaction to being raped. Her emotional distress was well portrayed in song, with the rage and grief both coming across strongly. She also threw some of the paper stack by the piano across the floor, kicking at it in her frustration.
Finally, as Lucrece stabbed herself, and she was describing the blood flowing out in two rivers to surround the body, red petals floated down to cover the centre of the stage – a beautiful image for a sad event.
Her father’s lament was done as a song, and then her husband took the knife with which she stabbed herself, swearing to avenge her rape and death. Tarquin was banished, and Lucrece’s reputation restored to honour. Not a happy ending, but a fitting completion to this amazing emotional journey we’d been taken on.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me