Rape is a difficult subject, and the suicide of a rape victim even darker. Unhappily, though, both are still with us and need to be seriously investigated, and song, dark song, is the way Irish chanteuse, Camille O’Sullivan, and her musical director, Feargal Murray, a pianist and her accompanist, have chosen to give new life to Shakespeare’s long tragic narrative poem, the Rape of Lucrece, for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).
Camille O’Sullivan’s trajectory as a singer of provocative music is unusual. Born in London of Irish/French parentage, she grew up in Cork, trained as an architect in Dublin at UCD (indeed has subsequently practised as an award-winning architect), discovering university review, and began to develop her own material. Her singing career became stellar and international in the late ’oughties. She comes to Australia for the Sydney Festival in January, and later to Melbourne, trailing awards – Herald Angel Woman of the Year (Music) for Lucrece at the Edinburgh International Festival, Best Spiegeltent Show at the Dublin Fringe, the very prestigious Spirit of the Fringe at the Edinburgh Fringe, and Best Cabaret Artiste in the highly regarded Melbourne Green Room Theatre Awards (2004). She has also featured in films (‘Mrs Henderson Presents’), and diversified as a theatre performer (‘Sweeney Todd’ and ‘Tonight Lola Blau’, both at the Gate Theatre, Dublin). Lucrece brings together her theatre and singing skills. Reviewers get excited about her ability to inhabit a character, indeed many characters, something that bodes well for Lucrece, in which she plays at least four characters.
How the Shakespearean project came to be is a compelling tale in itself. Coming from a background of adapting provocative narrative poems to song – Jacques Brel, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, David Bowie – she was noticed by the RSC talent scouts at the Edinburgh Festival where she was performing her own material, and brought to London to workshop the poem, and competitively audition, with a view to creating a new artefact from one of the less-explored corners of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. The Rape of Lucrece is an early work where Shakespeare flexes his muscle as a serious poet. As far as I’m aware, recreating this poem in theatrical/musical form is a highly innovative venture, and to my eyes (and I’ve done a lot of adapting of literary texts for the stage), not a simple one.
What a challenge to be presented by the RSC’s Elizabeth Freestone with an immensely long (1855 lines) and complex poem, reduce it by two thirds to its skeletal but highly emotionally charged narrative form, and breathe even more feeling into this emotion-soaked poem about a rape victim and her predator. Although initially dismayed that she did not have what she imagined to be the RSC-approved skills in dealing with Shakespeare’s language, she was reassured that ‘doing it [her] own Irish way’ and in powerful, hard-hitting song was precisely the new dimension she brought to the work, and has eased into the roles by feeling her way, with help from Shakespeare’s graphic word-pictures. The fact that the poem is written in rhyme royal stanzas (seven lines in iambic pentameter rhyming ababbcc) made it easier to translate into music.
Camille plays both the chaste and honourable Lucrece and the charming, manipulative (and finally lust-driven and violent) Tarquin, and at times becomes the narrator and the grieving father. This has a point, she believes, in blurring gender stereotypes, and arriving more securely at the complexity of each of the main characters. One can’t easily say, ‘that’s a female/male way of behaving’. However, there remain dilemmas for a modern audience, which is not likely to be able to accept the victim’s ultimate suicide (not that Shakespeare does that either, but he can be very one-eyed about Tarquin). Camille O’Sullivan’s main project has been to find ways to express and chart the shift from the vulnerability of the preyed-upon woman who assumes that the king’s son is her husband’s friend, to a woman with immense dignity and a sense of self-worth who proactively controls her honour (even if she has to use men to do it), in her terms ‘a dearer thing than life’. As the project has developed, Camille been ‘blown away’ by the humanity of Shakespeare’s treatment of the victim, and even by his understanding of the psychology of the rapist, whom she sees as more intriguing than just a two-dimensional villain. Apart from the seemingly inevitable modern revulsion at the fetishisation of virginity, the approach Camille is taking is strikingly modern and it is one that I think will resonate with women (and sympathetic men, and male rape victims), even if they cannot agree with Lucrece’s final self-annihilation. As she commented, music can intensify Shakespeare’s superb tragic poetry many times over.
The staging, directed by Elizabeth Freestone, in the Shakespearean spirit, will be minimalist and subtle. It relies on a simple set by Lily Arnold, suggestive costume changes but very few of them, and Vince Herbert’s (Head of Lighting at RSC) lighting design creates the physical space and set in such a way that imaginations of the audience will come into active play. The piano accompaniment by Feargal Murray effects transitions between characters and narrators, and Camille stresses how very synergetic the musical relationship between them is: ‘he follows my breath – it’s a very symbiotic soul thing going between us’.
This production promises to be innovative and moving. It plays at the Sydney Festival from and then has a strictly limited season in Melbourne at the Melbourne Theatre Company (the Sumner Theatre) from 31 January to 10 February.
FRANCES DEVLIN-GLASS, Book Reviews editor of Tinteán, interviewed Camille O’Sullivan prior to her departure for the Sydney Festival on 11 January 2013.
The Rape of Lucrece
31 January to 10 February 2013
Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
140 Southbank Boulevard
Thu 31/1 to Sat 02/02 @ 8pm
Wed 6/2 to Sat 9/2 @ 8pm
Sun 10/2 @ 5pm
Tickets: $85.00 Adult | $77.00 Conc | $33.00 Under 30
Southbank Theatre: mtc.com.au/lucrece.aspx, 8688 0800 or at the Southbank Theatre Box Office
Ticketmaster: ticketmaster.com.au, 1300 723 038 or any Ticketmaster outlet