Given the fortuitous timing, you could almost believe it was planned. On the same day a Belfast court found four men not guilty of rape following a much publicized trial, the verdict sparking outrage across social media with #IBelieveHer trending heavily on Twitter, the Gate Theatre opened its much anticipated revival of William Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece.” Adapted by Elizabeth Freestone, Feargal Murray, and Camille O’Sullivan from Shakespeare’s narrative poem, and featuring original music by Murray and O’Sullivan, “The Rape of Lucrece” tells of a virtuous Roman woman, raped by a king’s son, who loses something more precious than life. Or, more precisely, has it taken from her. Powerful, passionate, and deeply poignant, “The Rape of Lucrece” reminds us that when it comes to anything, Shakespeare is the man for everything. And that when it comes to possessing genuine superstar quality, the incomparable Camille O’Sullivan is unquestionably the real deal.
Since its production by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon back in 2012, making its Dublin debut as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2013, “The Rape of Lucrece” has gone on to receive international critical acclaim. Its tale of Lucrece, faithful wife to her husband Collatine, raped at knifepoint by the king’s son Tarquin, gives voice to an unimaginable experience which often renders many of its victims voiceless. Told through song and story, the simple interplay of voice, song, and piano accompaniment proves to be incredibly effective, marrying text and music in a near perfect synchronicity.
While essentially the same production that graced DTF in 2013, there are many subtle shifts in The Gate’s “The Rape of Lucrece,” some for the better, though not all, which make this something of a new experience. Director Elizabeth Freestone articulates a much more intimate performance, foregrounding with greater urgency the woman, and her experience, at the centre of Shakespeare’s Roman tale. Performed beautifully by Camille O’Sullivan, O’Sullivan conducts words and songs like powerful magic, accompanied by the most intricate and informative hand gestures, as if weaving and casting spells. Feargal Murray on piano does more than add musical accompaniment. His partnership with O’Sullivan having deepened over the years, like a fine wine, is imbued with a chemistry that makes his playing a delight to listen to.
Yet while politically potent, and performatively brilliant, offering a searing insight into the suffering of rape victims, “The Rape of Lucrece” is not without its theatrical problems. Lily Arnold’s set design, looking far less impressive, or suggestive, than the O’Reilly Theatre in 2013, might want to trade scale for intimacy, but in the end it looks like a back stage get-in at a music venue. Cloths draped across black storage boxes, a large curtain hanging to the rear, too much is sacrificed in the trade off, risking “The Rape of Lucrece” resembling an after hours jam session by a couple of late night musicians with no homes to go to. Lighting design by Claire Gerrens also proves problematic, if admirably ambitious. If sometimes exquisite and beautifully effective, other times it misses the mark entirely, being extremely inconsistent throughout.
Sound too has its issues, though whether this is a result of technical problems or O’Sullivan it’s hard to be certain. Indeed there’s much to suggest that O’Sullivan’s throat, or a cold, gave her cause for concern, with O’Sullivan appearing to rest her voice somewhat between songs, making dialogue difficult to hear on occasion. If this is indeed the case it only confirms what most people already know: that, even when not running on all cylinders, O’Sullivan still delivers far better than most on their best day.
With “The Rape of Lucrece” The Gate, with almost supernatural perspicacity, have placed front and centre an issue whose eternal timeliness continues to put civilization to shame. In “The Rape of Lucrece” O’Sullivan not only gives Lucrece voice and agency, she also gives her presence and dignity in a powerhouse performance. Over four hundred years later “The Rape of Lucrece” still has much to say about the bragging of men and the rape of women.
Allow that to sink in a moment.
“The Rape of Lucrece” by William Shakespeare, adapted by Elizabeth Freestone, Feargal Murray and Camille O’Sullivan, runs at The Gate Theatre until April 7th
For more information, visit The Gate Theatre.