By William Shakespeare
Directed by Elizabeth Freestone
Venue: Swan Theatre
Date: Thursday 26th June 2014
We saw this same production three years ago and were keen to see how they were doing it now. We had contrasting opinions this time: I didn’t think the production had changed much (although the performances had naturally developed) while Steve felt it was very different and preferred this performance to the previous one. To be fair, he didn’t rate our first viewing as high as I had, a fact which, in the glow of a wonderful evening, I seem to have omitted from my notes.
Tonight’s show had lost the element of surprise and I found it a bit rougher, with a less clear storyline at the start but more detail in Lucrece’s suffering and anger. I noticed more of the lighting changes this time, and they were very effective. A shaft of light cut across the stage when Tarquin opened the door to Lucrece’s room, which was then created by a square of blue light. When she awoke, another square of white light shone out within the blue square, creating the image of the curtained bed and the startled woman very clearly. Later, I could see, within the squares, the shape of a huddled woman which was in a different shade to the rest of the light – another evocative choice. Tarquin’s attempted prayer before committing the rape reminded me of Claudius’ attempts to pray in Hamlet, while the rape itself seemed more brutal this time – not that it was sweetness and light last time! I also liked the contrast in their movements: Tarquin’s heavy pounding steps emphasised his rapacious nature while Lucrece generally had softer, gentler movements as well as a haunting stillness.
The introduction seemed to be the same, although if it was I had forgotten the information about the number of times Shakespeare mentions Lucrece in his other plays. The costumes were almost the same – Camille wasn’t wearing black leggings this time, but in this heat that’s no surprise – and the set was so similar that I couldn’t spot any changes. The papers which Lucrece threw across the stage in her rage seemed to come from the top of the piano this time, and when she went over to the front right corner paper stack, she took the top sheet to use as the letter and sat on the rest of the pile, showing it to nearby audience members in the process.
After the letter had been sent, there was a short period where Feargal (the pianist) played some gentle chords and Camille went to the back of the stage to put on a long cream-coloured coat, pinning her hair back up. She may have done this last time as well – my notes don’t mention it either way – but I suspect it’s new, and a clear way to introduce the next characters: Lucrece’s husband and her father. There were no red petals to demonstrate the two streams of blood coming from her heart, and the performance ended with the lights going down as the slanting shaft of light picked out the boots and shoes on the stage.
As I watched tonight I was more aware that the poem seems to be showing two main ideas. One was the way men twist their thoughts to justify rape, often pinning the blame on the woman, and the second thing that came across strongly was Lucrece’s suffering. It would take a very hard heart not to feel compassion for her, and although I still feel that she shouldn’t consider herself corrupted by the rape, I could understand her desire to remove the dishonour by killing the physical body which had been defiled.
There was a post-show opportunity tonight, and both performers plus Liz Freestone, the director, came out to talk with us, ably assisted by Nicky Cox. Liz had wanted to do this poem for some time, but it wasn’t till she saw Camille and Feargal in cabaret at the Edinburgh festival in 2008 that she saw the possibility of using their talents to put the poem on stage. Camille and Feargal are used to unlocking the narrative of a song, with Camille creating a strong sense of character in the process. Camille hadn’t acted at that point, and the prospect of doing a Shakespeare poem on a stage, even with RSC backing (or perhaps especially with RSC backing) was pretty daunting, but fortunately they both took it on and worked with Liz to develop the piece (and of course, it’s still developing even now).
As they are all emotional people, it was a very intense experience, but the RSC gave them plenty of development time, allowing for short experiments here and there, and it seems that it wasn’t long before people who saw even short bits of the production were confident that it had to be presented on stage. Even so, it was hard work, and some of the success of the early performances was the adrenalin rush of Camille having to learn her lines, while Feargal apparently doesn’t bother learning anything – he just has a note of the various chords for each bit of the script and makes the rest up as he goes along. This allows him to alter the accompaniment to fit Camille’s performance, which can vary considerably from night to night. Sometimes she brings out much more anger, sometimes it goes in other directions, and he’s able to go with her and support whatever’s coming out.
They’ve taken the piece to a number of countries, and there are widely different responses across the planet. In Poland, everyone focused on the politics of the poem, while in Brazil, for example, people connected more with the passion in the story. I was dismayed to hear that, shortly before their arrival in Brazil, there had been a news story that 65% of men thought that rape was the woman’s fault! Naturally this led to a lot of post-show questions during the run which were based on that perspective, with one of the Brazilian journalists apparently unable to understand why Lucrece chose to commit suicide afterwards.
Asked if these differing attitudes and perspectives affected the performances, Camille responded that they did, and they should. Apart from keeping the production fresh, it was important to tell the story in a way that each audience could relate to, so if they had particular concerns then the performance changed to accommodate that. With the production having been created for the Swan, it was nice to come back to it again, and they found that some aspects of the performance made more sense in this location.
About 70% of the poem was in the performance, with a few additional bits here and there, mainly in the introduction. They cut Lucrece’s long description of a painting as it would have been difficult to dramatise, and also her pre-rape pleading to Tarquin. They wanted us to hear her voice for the first time after the rape, and they also removed a lot of the war stuff so that the rape wouldn’t be diminished in scale by contemporary knowledge of the horrors of conflict.
Liz declared herself non-expert in terms of Shakespeare’s historical context, but when asked what else Shakespeare was writing about that time, she explained that he was well into his career as a playwright, had just got his first sponsor and was developing a name for himself even if he wasn’t making much money. The Rape Of Lucrece was a well-known classical story and very popular both in Will’s day and since; Liz rattled off a number of paintings done by top artists of this subject matter.
The use of only one performer was questioned: Liz had based that choice on seeing how brilliantly Camille became each character as she moved from song to song in the cabaret show. It also brings up a whole lot of other issues to have a man and a woman acting rape on a stage. Feargal had seen a one-man performance version of the poem, and was quick to assert that he hadn’t stolen anything for this version.
Camille’s influences as a singer include Patti Smith, Jacques Brel and the like, singers who may not have the sweetest-sounding voices but who use their ‘real’ voice to tell the story of the song. When writing the songs for this piece, they began by deciding where the songs should go – first person speech only – and then used the rhythm of the first line to dictate the rhythm of the whole song. Despite seeming happy to chat to us all evening, Nicky finally closed the session and took them off to the bar (it’s a tough job…). With any luck, we’ll get another chance to see this in the future.
© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me