SHAKESPEARE wrote the narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece in 1594 in response, apparently, to a request by his patron, the Earl of Southampton, for a serious subject.
That subject was rape, and who better to write about it than William Shakespeare, who so intuitively understood the human condition. It’s an old story, that of Lucrece or Lucretia — Ovid recorded it, as did Livy, both detailing the shameful attack on an aristocratic lady of Rome by Tarquin, the king’s son.
It was, probably, the final straw that caused the collapse of the royal family and the founding of the Roman republic. Politically-charged, sexually provocative and violent, The Rape of Lucrece is ideal material for today’s jaded audiences. For Royal Shakespeare Company director Elizabeth Freestone, it was a fresh alternative to Shakespeare’s over-performed famous plays.
The spur was when Freestone saw Camille O’Sullivan perform at the Edinburgh Festival in her one-woman show, and knew she had found her Lucrece. Irish/French chanteuse O’Sullivan says: “Liz Freestone is really amazing, clever, charismatic, visionary. I suppose you have to be with the Royal Shakespeare. She went to the show I was doing with Feargal [collaborator Feargal Murray] in Edinburgh in my tenth year there, and told me afterwards that what she saw was someone who could inhabit songs and make that chameleon change, switching from vulnerable to dark and back again.
“She had the idea of turning the poem into a play, using music, and could see me in that role, especially with Feargal’s music,” O’Sullivan says. “I don’t know if she thought I was standoffish, or way out there, or what, but it was another year before she got the confidence to make contact, at another festival, and then we chatted about the idea.”
O’Sullivan and Murray loved the notion, but with a punishing travelling and performance schedule, it was another year before the three got together in a room in Clapham Junction.
“I didn’t know it at the time but the RSC wanted us to come up with an idea, and I was actually being auditioned by the really major people there when we got together.
“ If I’d realised that, I’d have been too terrified even to think,” O’Sullivan says.
Concentration was total. “We put the poem up on different pieces of paper on the walls and looked at them in every sequence possible. We read it to ourselves several hundred times, and then isolated it down to an emotional story of man and woman, good and evil. “We brought the three-hour poem down to eight minutes and, then, Fergal and I started charting the emotional movement and where the singing should happen, and we decided that should be when someone spoke in their own voice, as opposed to that of the narrator. It was very exciting and, at times, almost like rap-speaking, when you spoke over the rhythm to bring in more anger or emotion.”
All those years of singing other people’s music and of interpreting it, says O’Sullivan, were a great way to interpret Shakespeare. “Music mustn’t be busy or contrived or clever — it has to support the words, so people feel you’re still speaking them.”
It was easier than expected. “Oh, we shouted at each other, of course, and got excited about things, but Elizabeth was wonderful in guiding us and Fergal and I had that rapport that we’ve always had.”
O’Sullivan and Murray are each part of the other’s performance, as opposed to the standard singer/accompanist. “If one of us had not been part of it, it wouldn’t have happened. Feargal knows how I’m going to phrase something, where I will slow or speed, almost before I do, and he’s there at exactly the same time,” O’Sullivan says.
After Lucrece is raped, O’Sullivan says her character is like a wounded animal. “She’s a woman whose soul and body have been taken.”
It must surely be fairly exhausting, not to say traumatic, to perform such a show? “It is. You get so upset every time — you empathise with anyone who’s been through it. I’m a complete wreck after every performance. ‘You are a totally emotional person, Camille, and that’s why I wanted to have you for this,’ Elizabeth told me. It’s amazing, Shakespeare’s understanding of a woman’s psyche.
“You realise his complete understanding of a woman and her fragility. You don’t need to go to a therapist, just read him. You’re swimming in his words,” O’Sullivan says.
Cecily Berry, from the RSC was also wonderfully helpful, O’Sullivan says. “She’s nearly 90 and she knows so much. She told me not to overdo it, just feel the beauty of the words.”
O’Sullivan plays all the characters, which she loves doing, “because it shows how many facets you can cover. You can move from evil and manipulative to innocent and ravaged. You’ve been that person and now you’re that one. It’s a very upsetting tale, but the beauty of the descriptions is incredible. Fergal is a great musician and he created almost a full soundtrack, so you never feel it’s spoken/song, you’re guided into it all the way”.
Now, Cork audiences have the opportunity to see Shakespeare’s great poem thrillingly brought to life through storytelling and song by the Royal Shakespeare Company, with original music played live by Murray on piano, and O’Sullivan inhabiting the souls of both perpetrator and victim. While narrating their fates, she delivers an astonishing range of human experience, contained in this seamless and powerful blend of music and verse, as beautiful as it is monstrous.