York Theatre, January 22.
This was a risk on behalf of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which took a cabaret performer – albeit one with few peers for charging a room with electricity – and thrust into her hands the 1900 lines of Shakespeare’s narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece. Camille O’Sullivan, her musical accomplice Feargal Murray and her director Elizabeth Freestone have turned that risk into a triumph, and in the process opened up a new universe of possibilities for what O’Sullivan can do with her acting and singing gifts.
Of course simply reciting a poem for nearly 90 minutes would drive a modern audience to distraction (unlike our more patient forbears, with their commendable attention spans). So Freestone, Murray and O’Sullivan have opted to set roughly half the text to music, an option in which Shakespeare’s rhyme scheme and meter (mostly but not exclusively iambic pentameter) is more than willing to participate. The songs defy genre, perhaps falling closest to the brooding insistency of a composer like Nick Cave.
O’Sullivan appears initially in a throat-to-ankle black coat of ambiguous gender. In this she introduces and embarks upon the poem, which tells of Tarquin’s violent rape of Lucrece in ancient Rome, her suicide and his subsequent disgrace. O’Sullivan does not seek to transform herself into a man when she is Tarquin, instead allowing the force of Shakespeare’s pulsing language to do the work for her. It is a shrewd decision, allowing the acting to grow out of the vibrancy of the text rather as a result of an artificial need to be the narrator one moment, Tarquin the next and then Lucrece.
For the rape scene O’Sullivan divests herself of the coat to reveal a simple shift that immediately speaks of vulnerability. The understatement of her early performance now allows her to step up to a level of potency that had tears welling my eyes more than once, and which sometimes physically blasted me back in my seat. The songs here were bruising in their intensity, and yet never overwrought, just as O’Sullivan’s voice bristled with passion without losing that vital note of vulnerability.
Murray accompanied her at the piano on stage, and also gently coloured much of the spoken text. Some of this incidental work seemed too close to a chocolate-box tweeness, and perhaps more of the spoken word could be have been left without music to increase contrast and impact.
Lily Arnold’s design has a simplicity in harmony with the decision for O’Sullivan not to changes voices and manner between characters. Piles of paper decorate a stage of painted boards, on which Vince Herbert’s lighting creates the “bed” where the fateful deed is carried out. Set, lighting, music and the way that Freestone moves O’Sullivan around the large – and largely empty – stage all converge to dreamlike effect, and magnify the sense of Lucrece’s piteous defencelessness. Crafting the presentation of a poem into such visceral and haunting theatre is a significant achievement for all concerned, especially Ms O’Sullivan.