RSC: The Rape of Lucrece

A show based on Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece was never going to have feel good or light-hearted chick flick love.

So while I wasn’t surprised to come out feeling furious, I wasn’t expecting to be so inspired at the same time. This topic can always be trusted to raise emotions, but I wasn’t just angry at Lucrece’s tragedy – I was angry that she had no voice, that a re-creation of this piece in this day made me feel more compassion for the rapist than the victim. It left me feeling like something was wrong.

RSC, Rape of Lucrece. Photo by Keith Pattison
RSC, Rape of Lucrece. Photo by Keith Pattison

Stylistically (staging, lighting, music, performance), everything is fantastic – except how the script deals with the story. Brilliant. Camille O’Sullivan is amazing. Her character portrayals are staggeringly impressive and her voice versatile, husky, engaging; my companion defined it as “mahogany”, which perfectly fits its darkness, strength and beauty.

The way she and the pianist Feargal Murray have worked songs into the show is also masterful, and the music is engaging and lifting, and does at least as much storytelling as the words. It’s refreshing to have Shakespeare set to an almost rock opera tune, and sung in such a non-typical, non-classical voice. Putting the poem into the hands of musicians was a brilliant move by the Royal Shakespeare Company in their bid to recreate themselves.

So why do I have this nagging feeling of annoyance? It comes from how well-developed and represented the character of the rapist Tarquin is in the first half of the show. We feel like we understand him, we see his struggles, his reasoning, the fight between his lust and his mind. And again, Camille is so strong, so convincing, and her voice and body bring a character to us who we never thought to sympathise with.

That is what makes our lack of sympathy for the heroine so odd. Lucrece doesn’t speak until after she is raped. Then she gives voice to her fury and desperation and despair – but since we know nothing of this character except that she was chaste and an elegant hostess to her husband’s friends, we don’t really connect with her pain.

By ‘we’ I mean my girlfriend and myself, and after the show, furiously talking it over, we went immediately to the original poem to see what was changed. Interestingly, Lucrece does say quite a lot more in the poem – she spends a good chunk of time appealing to Tarquin’s better side, arguing persuasively (though not persuasively enough) against what he plans to do. I feel that, perhaps if we’d heard any of this at all in the performance, it may have helped us feel more of her side of the story, and developed her into a coherent character. Perhaps it’s assumed that we’ll automatically sympathise with the victim. Perhaps I’m just heartless. I don’t know, yet I feel the script shows an overrepresentation of the male characters, and doesn’t develop Lucrece convincingly.

Bizarrely, that doesn’t stop it being a brilliant show, and didn’t stop me enjoying the work of a team of wonderful artists.

The lighting by Vince Herbert has to be mentioned, because it is a beautiful complement to the narrative of the show, and is subtle and powerful all at once. The design by Lily Arnold is another delightful feature with evocate set pieces that created a Romanesque air, at once harsh and controlled. Murray’s accompaniment is excellent; he sets the scene musically then fades into the background as Camille grips the spotlight and holds us entranced.

I highly recommend that musicians, writers and language lovers of all kinds see this show. While I think elements of the script construction are weak, this takes nothing away from Shakespeare’s incredible language. It is a very accessible evolution of a little known yet beautiful poem recreated through exceptional contemporary music.

Joanna Bowen

Joanna is a Melbourne-based writer and Jill of all genres. She writes content, scripts and biographies, among other things, and regularly discusses the many delights of Melbourne living.

Joanna Bowen

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