The title alone may be enough to discourage some from seeing singer Camille O’Sullivan’s latest project.
O’Sullivan and long-time collaborator Feargal Murray pull no punches in bringing this dark, tragic poem to the stage.
Penned by Shakespeare in 1594, it tells the Roman story of Lucretia (Lucrece), the beautiful daughter of an aristocrat, who was raped by the king’s son Tarquin.
Lucrece ends her own life, in front of her father, and her husband Collatine.
The ensuing outrage is said to have felled Rome’s monarchy and led to the establishment of the republic.
Commanding the stage at York Theatre with her formidable voice and presence, O’Sullivan plays victim, perpetrator and narrator in a virtuoso display.
O’Sullivan’s casual introduction belied what was coming: the brutal and uncomfortable exposition of a rape.
What follows are 80 challenging minutes.
The set was simple, the lighting sublime. Lucrece’s shining white ballet shoes and Tarquin’s black military boots are set to either side; a rectangle of light portrays her bedroom chamber; which is pierced by a shard of light as the plotting Tarquin pushes its door ajar.
O’Sullivan embodies Tarquin, the rapist’s mad, gaudy desire:
“As from this cold flint I enforced this fire,
So Lucrece must I force to my desire.”
O’Sullivan shows vocal dexterity by delivering Shakespeare’s poem with pace and to a new musical cadence.
Murray’s piano is at times harrowing and beautiful.
Lucrece’s fear, pain and sense of stolen honour pours from the latter stages of the performance, O’Sullivan’s most gripping and most physically demanding.
“Sad souls are slain in merry company;
Grief best is pleased with grief’s society:
True sorrow then is feelingly sufficed
When with like semblance it is sympathized.”
Shakespeare’s cascading lines – sung and spoken by O’Sullivan – grab for attention, their adornments providing a veneer for the dark goings on, often upstaging O’Sullivan herself.
This is an engrossing yet discomforting piece of theatre, performed fearlessly by O’Sullivan.
The Rape Of Lucrece is at Sydney Festival until tomorrow night and at Melbourne’s Southbank Theatre from January 31 until February 10.