The Rape of Lucrece at The O’Reilly Theatre

November 4, 2013


Camille O’Sullivan, who has made her name interpreting the work of other singer-songwriters from Cohen to Weil to Thom Yorke of Radiohead, turns her attention to the Bard in this mounting of the Rape of Lucrece, a partially sung production of Shakespeare’s 1,855 line poem. Quilled in 1594, Lucrece, whose rape and eventual suicide birthed the Roman Republic, is very much a modern tragic hero, with thoughts of Savita Halappanavar and Fiachra Daly seeping out from her bloody demise. “They did conclude to bear dead Lucrece thence; to show her bleeding body through Rome, and so to publish Tarquin’s foul offence…”

O’Sullivan, her long-time collaborator, pianist Fergal Murray, and director Elizabeth Featherstone go a little further back than the present day for musical inspiration for the ageless themes of feminine chastity and sexual jealousy, the clash and fallout of which has seen women pay the ultimate price throughout time and now.

Blending spoken word with piano laced pop there are thrilling echoes of Patti Smith – particularly Birdland, and the resurrected fury of Marianne Faithful, who, after falling on the sword for indulging in her sexual and narcotic vices, returned with the guttural Broken English expressing her disillusionment, guilt and desperation, emotions all explored here.

Inhabiting predator and prey as well as the detached narrator, O Sullivan draws on both performers in a turn that surges from cool observation to overwhelming passion to stark disgust. The delicate white slip on shoes, bathed in Lily Arnold’s autumnal light, symbolise Lucrece, soon overshadowed by the leather boots of her rapist Tarquin. But the growling, coarse crack O’Sullivan applies to her vocals captures her furious reclamation of control.

Beautifully designed by Arnold, the six hanging canvases and parchments placed around the stage act as a subtle reminder for how this story has been reflected and reframed through many other art forms, as it finds new life as a baroque punk opera, and the charge and retreat of the music underscores the flailing control of the characters. Its great achievement is locating the music in the language and drawing it out.

But the music simply isn’t diverse enough to sustain us for 90 minutes, feeling rather like repetition as we approach the final third of the play. The O’Reilly theatre is far too cavernous and impersonal a venue for a production that craves immediacy, while those unfamiliar with the text will miss out in some of the smaller details, lost to occasional poor projection and the demands of the score. O’Sullivan always imparts emotion, but it can seem quite general and disassociated from the truth of the writing.

This is a rewarding and ambitious project. It falls just short of being an unqualified success due to the limitations of the music.

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