The Rape of Lucrece

William Shakespeare, adapted by Elizabeth Freestone
Royal Shakespeare Company
Southbank Centre

Shakespeare’s tragic poem The Rape of Lucrece is rarely performed. Written in 1594 and stretched over 1,844 lines, it was only ever meant to be read. The title might be somewhat provocative, even off putting, but it also sets out exactly what this dark and lustful tale is ultimately all about.

Based in Rome, Lucrece is married to an officer of the King called Collatine. Her perfect dimensions of beauty and pureness are talked about with pride by her doting husband, which, unbeknown to him, sets the mind of the King’s son Tarquin into a spin. Unable to control his manly and unwanted urges, he rapes the beauty as she sleeps in her bed.

Camille O’Sullivan exercises the emotion and dark inner thoughts of both the victim and the protagonist with a real sense of captivating depth and understanding. Barefoot and dressed in a masculine, military style black coat, she uses what is a sparsely decorated and bleakly lit stage to the full, bringing to life the pain and anguish felt by them both.

Scattered with piles of manuscripts and housing only a piano, played by Feargal Murray, its uncluttered bareness adds to the drama and cold act of portrayal that becomes the centrepiece of this one-woman performance.

Peppered amongst the richness of Shakespeare’s lines are some specially written songs, which come as welcomed periods of respite from the horrific and at times uncomfortable listening, as O’Sullivan continues with relentless passion to act out Tarquin’s disgusting act of invasion and the bloody, sad aftermath of his actions.

Despite its subject matter, The Rape of Lucrece spares us much of the grotesque and degrading visual detail of the violent, lurid abuse and the unnecessary consequences of Tarquin’s actions, but it’s still not a play for the faint of heart. It is however a piece of genius penned by Shakespeare and superbly brought to life, made relevant and fresh by the mesmerising performance of O’Sullivan.

Even in the darkest moments, her rhythmic, honey-like, Irish accent makes the words somewhat palatable and surprisingly digestible.

Reviewer: Thomas Magill