Review: RSC’s The Rape of Lucrece, performed by Camille O’Sullivan – Cork Opera House 7th June 2014

While Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece was popular when it was first published – some 420 years ago this year – the poem remains a relatively unknown work to most modern audiences. Bearing this in mind, I approached Camille O’Sullivan’s performance with more than a little curiosity – How exactly would O’Sullivan convey the language and energy of the poem? Could this narrative poem work as drama and, if so, how? How would this lengthy poem, written in rhyme royal, be received by an audience unfamiliar with the Ovidian tale and Shakespeare’s poetic style? It was a delight then to discover that through O’Sullivan’s skilful wielding of words, the carefully calibrated decisions to use song at key moments, and a vibrant musical score, the poem was invested with new life and so captivated a new audience.

Opening on a simple set, the eye was drawn to some key features. Feargal Murray played a black piano off to one side, golden light streamed through high arched windows, and stacks of papers were positioned around the stage like stools. Given the shift from day to night to day in the poem, and the mention of Tarquin’s flickering torch, the use of light and dark on stage was purposeful. O’Sullivan arrived on stage in a black, military-style cassock. Using the poem’s ‘Argument’, she began her performance as the narrator and set out the story for the audience. The key players of the piece – Lucrece and Tarquin – were indicated by O’Sullivan’s pointing to two pairs of shoes: Lucrece was represented by pale slippers, Tarquin by black army boots. A notable strength of O’Sullivan’s performance was its clarity; each character was distinctive and she moved with ease between the roles of narrator, Lucrece, Tarquin, and later Collatine, and Lucretius. Throughout, O’Sullivan succeeded in bringing out the drama in the poem and useful links with other Shakespearean characters were discernible; by turns, the portrayal of Lucrece and Tarquin called to mind characters as diverse as Lavinia, Cressida, Angelo, Macbeth, and Othello.

While O’Sullivan delivered a commanding performance throughout, she was most compelling when voicing the tortured Tarquin. Through spoken word, song, and movement, she articulated his desire, and later his shame and self-hatred, with passion and verve. In one of Tarquin’s song, she languidly repeated the lines “her azure veins, her coral lips, her alabaster skin, her snow-white dimpled chin” (l.419-420) so that the blazon became an eerie, haunting refrain. A further memorable moment came when, as Tarquin, she tiptoed to Lucrece’s chamber, almost had her (imagined) torch blown out, but finally “with his knee the door he opens wide” (l.359). It was a testament to O’Sullivan’s performance that, although we knew well the outcome of Tarquin’s nocturnal excursion, this was a tense and gripping moment where everything seemed to hang in the balance.

At the finale of the poem, the men of Lucrece’s family gather to speak to her but end up bearing witness to her suicide. As Lucrece’s grief-stricken father Lucretius, O’Sullivan addresses his daughter’s dead body (or rather, the spot where O’Sullivan, as Lucrece, had fallen at her death only moments before.) In the end, therefore, Lucrece and Tarquin are absent presences; they drive the action, they are spoken of, their actor stands on the stage (now embodying other characters), but they are nowhere to be seen. It is a testament to the power of Shakespeare’s language and this production’s fresh and energetic rendering of the tale, then, that Lucrece and Tarquin remain in our minds long after they have left the stage.

Adapted by Elizabeth Freestone, Feargal Murray, and Camille O’Sullivan. Music composed by Feargal Murray and Camille O’Sullivan. Directed by Elizabeth Freestone.

This review was kindly contributed by Dr. Edel Semple, University College Cork.

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