Fleshing out the voice of Lucrece

The Rape of Lucrece, Swan Stratford, 2 April 2011

Camille O’Sullivan’s performance of The Rape of Lucrece lasted for 1h20m with no interval. During this time she maintained a constant flow of words both spoken and sung, taking only two sips from a glass. In those 80 minutes she led an audience on a journey into the dark heart of one of Shakespeare’s narrative poems.

The start of the performance was disarmingly simple. The stage of the Swan Theatre was empty apart from a grand piano, two piles of white paper and a pair of white shoes placed neatly downstage.

Camille and pianist Feargal Murray wandered on, Feargal quietly taking up position at the keys, while Camille, carrying a pair of heavy army boots, addressed the audience as herself.

She welcomed us to the Swan and began explaining the background to the story of Lucrece in simple terms (the boots, she said, represented Tarquin) before progressing seamlessly into her performance of the poem proper.

As the story unfolded she took on the roles of both Lucrece and Tarquin, singing and giving voice to both the violator and the violated. She occasionally stamped on the stage with her foot to mark out the rhythm of the songs.

In a neat piece of staging, Camille showed us Tarquin creeping through the corridors of Lucrece’s house extinguishing candles as he went. This was presented as her miming the snuffing of the candles with each motion accompanied by the strategic darkening of that particular section of the stage.

It was remarkable to see a woman play convincingly the part of a man with Tarquin’s intentions and professed desires.

The pivotal scene of Lucrece’s rape was the most memorable and perhaps, for the performer, the most demanding.

Silenced

At one moment she was Tarquin leaning over the unseen Lucrece with his hand on her throat, a jacket poised to smother her cries standing in for the “nightly linen” with which Lucrece is silenced in the poem.

With a deft movement, she turned on her back and became the struggling Lucrece weighed down by her assailant.

The pianist, who had until that moment provided a consonant musical accompaniment, got up from his seat and played a series of dissonant notes directly on the piano strings. His perverse grasping into the innards of the instrument was a strange echo of Tarquin’s crime.

After this point the poem deals with Lucrece’s tormented inner debate about honour and decency that ends with her suicide.

The transition was marked by Lucrece wearing her hair down, and with her black jacket removed to reveal her white smock, she adopted a colour scheme usually associated with purity and chastity.

The performance was passionate but even with the excision of Lucrece’s contemplation of the Trojan painting, its extended treatment of Lucrece inner world began to drag slightly and some restlessness could be detected in the otherwise engaged audience. Not even Lucrece’s frustrated upending of the stacks of paper could enliven the final stages of this long performance.

The moment of the suicide itself seemed underplayed compared with the staging of the rape. Some rose petals fell to the stage as Lucrece ended her life with a simple dagger blow. More was needed to underline the significance of this act, perhaps linking it thematically with the crime that had prompted it.

The audience gave Camille a standing ovation at the end, and similar standing ovations were reported on other nights during the short run of just four performances.

Atmosphere

There was much right about this rendition of the poem. The decision to play it without an interval meant that the atmosphere did not dissipate.

But this meant that any defects in latter half were amplified for them being a long way into a single span of attention. The 9pm start for the performance also did nothing to keep the audience fresh and perky.

Some of the songs were so loud that their words became indistinct, which is unfortunate when presenting an edited work where each word counts.

Despite Camille deserving great applause for the sheer work rate involved in keeping an audience’s attention singled-handed for 80 minutes, her performance could have benefited from some tweaking, particularly in the latter section when a restless audience needed more landmark moments to sustain interest.

I came away from it feeling that it required more work and that a true standing ovation should be reserved for an improved version.

The Rape of Lucrece is certainly, in any event, a worthy target of dramatisation. As the Arden edition of Shakespeare’s Poems points out on p. 43 of its introduction “Shakespeare’s narrator prefers always to recount the flow of Lucrece’s thoughts rather than her physical actions. She is in this sense audible rather than visible to the reader.”

The text of the poem, as Lucrece’s inner monologue, leaves the performer free to invent a visible physical presence for the character. This vital window of creativity can be illuminated in many different ways, leaving scope for further treatments.

Perhaps as more productions like this emerge exploring the theatricality and performability of the poem, academic treatments will be obliged to include the kind of extensive performance histories normally associated with studies of Shakespeare’s plays?

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