Boots and Court Shoes: Camille O’Sullivan’s Lucrece

Camille O'Sullivan in The Rape of Lucrece. Photo by Keith PattisonCamille O’Sullivan’s theatrical and sung adaptation of the Rape of Lucrece opened last night at the Sumner Theatre in Melbourne, having done a circuit that has included the Edinburgh and Sydney Festivals, under the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare Company. It is performing until 10 February at the Sumner Theatre, and I recommend it for many reasons.

The translation of long narrative poem to stage created a huge range of challenges, and the adaption is masterful. I was aware of a very still audience listening intently because the narrative pace was so adept at holding attention and moving the story on. To begin with Tarquin, the ravisher, was a superb decision, because Camille O’Sullivan’s sultry voice did male voices and her body the swagger of a certain swashbuckling (male) entitlement so well. The characterization was complemented by the Designer’s choice of a masculine-inflected greatcoat and the use of a huge pair of army boots. The decision to explore the ravisher in depth before meeting the victim really surprised me because it is so different from Shakespeare’s emphasis in the poem, but dramatically it was masterful, in every sense. It also meant that the revelation of the female victim was held up, which also added to the tension. The songs about her beauty were very appropriately given to the male voyeur, rather than the narrator.

Lucrece was symbolically aligned with white (though roses competed with lilies at points, a nice proleptic moment) and a spot-lit pair of poignantly dainty white court shoes often stood in for the chaste wife, and were used by the solo performer to help to build the narrative, in one of her several personae as the narrator. This contrast of heavy-duty and frivolous shoes was replicated in many ways throughout the play. It’s a poem that pivots around a lot of polar opposites. When she was finally unveiled, at the point of the rape, she was wearing a white shift, the only aspect of the design I’d quibble with, as I felt it was too modern. This, of course, might have been the point, but a simple shift to the floor in a neutral style would have done the job more elegantly, I’d suggest. The final costume change, which had to do double service for both a dignified suicide of the victim and the victim’s father, a very beautiful white cape-style coat, was inspired, however, for reasons I’ll explain below.

The musical dimension of the show was its most radical innovation. The songs and settings were moving (all praise to jazz/cabaret style chanteuse, Camille O’Sullivan and her pianist/composer colleague, Feargal Murray), building on Shakespeare’s royal rhyme in subtle ways. It was wonderful to watch the transitions from spoken to sung language, and to see how effortlessly they seemed to segue. Music was deployed to heighten emotion, and I especially enjoyed the delicacy of the song the morning after in which Lucrece debates whether body or soul is dearer. The answer is that both are important, not only to Collatine, the husband, but also to heaven. The point seems quite modern, especially given the poem’s emphasis on purity and what until that moment seemed to put soul and honour before life. The psychological tussle, for which Shakespeare was to become so famous in the mature plays (in which we’re told Lucrece is often alluded to), was highly dramatic and much intensified by the music. Feargal Murray’s accompaniment was extraordinarily tactful in the manner of the master accompanist, and often also very physical. At the point of the rape, he was to be seen plucking and depressing strings inside the body of the piano – the keys were apparently not enough to create the tense drama of the moment.

Camille made no attempt to change her Irish accent, and while her diction sometimes did not serve the exacting Shakespearean language well, and may create some listening difficulties for those not familiar with the accent, her acting, and in particular the subtle use of gesture and eye and facial movement, more than compensated, and there were moments when the accent contributed a great deal, for example, she drew attention to words like deflower by elongating the middle vowel, and the final Irish-inflected r allowed her to linger on the word. As a Hibernophile, I loved the way she wore her accent proudly, and all praise to her director for not attempting to moderate it.

The staging of the show was fascinating, though not without some minor technical hitches (mainly lighting and sound) on the first night. These will presumably be sorted as the production wears in. The set uses about half of the cavernous Sumner and in true Shakespearean fashion is devoid of stage furniture, apart from the grand piano. The most spectacular physical object on set is a series of paintings of a quite abstract kind, the work presumably of Designer Lily Arnold. These light up at various points to suggest variously the fires of Tarquin’s lust and the victim’s blood. They fitted the triangulated stage perfectly and gave the very simple set a lavishness which suggestively gave talk of Lucrece’s body as a palace/tower under siege a physicality that was aesthetically pleasing. The only other stage props were mountains of paper, suggestive of Shakespeare’s opus and his immense drive as a creative force (the poem was written during a time in London when stages were dark because of the plague). When these were pelted in anger across the stage, they even fell pleasingly to my eye!

Vince Herbert’s lighting design was a feature of the show. It created dramatic openings of a chamber door, the previously inviolable sanctuary of her bed/body, and also more dramatic effects like a huge and menacing shadow created by yellow lights for the rape scene. Darkness and light is a prominent motif in the poem, with Tarquin associated with the former and Lucrece the latter. The payoff was huge in the scene of the morning after when, after a night of furious rage in the dark, the victim presents with uncanny calm and dignity as the light arises and she notes the birdsong of whch she is no longer part. It was a resurrection of sorts, made grave and momentous by the donning of the white coat. The lighting pointed up the coat, the music, the character’s demeanour, as the narrative works to its unpalatable dénouement, and it helped to make very clear, even plausible, the character’s honour-based reasons for killing herself (not that it’s at all a position one could condone in the modern world, where notions of pollution of the blood are no longer laid at the victim’s feet).

So, a very impressive performance and adaptation of a poem which is a most unlikely candidate for theatrical adaptation. All praise to Camille O’Sullivan, Feargal Murray, and the director Elizabeth Firestone (and of course the talented designers) and the RSC for having the courage to tackle it in this day and age.

FRANCES DEVLIN-GLASS, Reviews Editor and Editorial Team, Tinteán.

Frances has been a theatre reviewer and adjudicator since the early 1980s.