“Just to warn you, there may be some singing,” Camille O’Sullivan’s tone was playful as she welcomed a full house at the O’Reilly Theatre, safe in the knowledge that they were there because her name was on the billing sheet as much as they were to see the dramatization of Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece.
Accompanied by a captivating original score played live by pianist Fergal Murray, O’Sullivan gives voice to the wronged Lucrece, artfully showing us the thought process that leads her to suicide in the wake of such violation. “But she had lost a dearer thing than life,” O’Sullivan’s melancholic voice forces us to listen to the explanation. A victim not only of rapist Tarquin, but also of her husband Collatine’s excessive boasts of her unrivalled chastity, Shakespeare’s Lucrece is a painting, a possession – owned, described and ultimately destroyed by men. O’Sullivan in her white shift dress, bereft of her matching pumps which lie spotlit on stage before the performance begins, wrests some of the 1,855 line epic back under Lucrece’s control. The haunting melodies and quiet fury of the songs interspersed with the text drag us along as she goes kicking and screaming towards the only option left her.
The bullish Tarquin is also impressively portrayed by O’Sullivan, the black soutane and pinned up hair she dons for the first half of the production matched by her sultry, low singing as he stampedes his way past reason into Lucrece’s bedchamber.
“What win I, if I gain the thing I seek?” O’Sullivan’s Tarquin flirts with self-awareness.
“A dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy.” And yet, as he grows larger than life in front of us, enraptured by his lust, the catchy jaunt of his song signals that he has already made up his mind.
Adapted by O’Sullivan, Murray and director Elizabeth Freestone, this Royal Shakespeare Company production sustains its momentum until the end. With a lyric book of this quality, the musical element could be found lacking. Not so with this sweet and memorable score which wraps around the iambic verse and could give some more established musicals a run for their money.
The austere set design by Lily Arnold complements the action, the painted frames, jagged floorboards and mounds of paper sheets working as metaphor and prop as O’Sullivan tornados around the set. Lighting adds too, brightening and dimming, mirroring the black and white dichotomies presented on stage: pumps versus boots, dress versus soutane, innocence versus evil. The audience may have witnessed the darkness along with Lucrece, but thanks to O’Sullivan’s clever pinpointing of the text with song, we are left with an impression of light: “Her azure veins, her alabaster skin, her coral lips, her snow-white dimpled chin.”