Theatre review: The Rape Of Lucrece, Royal Lyceum Theatre

THESE DAYS, in the west, we often comfort ourselves with the thought that the battle for sexual equality has been won; yet this has been a week full of reminders that for many, women’s bodies remain a territory to be controlled and argued over by men.

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Written in an age before feminism, Shakespeare’s mighty narrative poem The Rape Of Lucrece reaches straight to the heart of that tension, as it surrounds the breathtakingly beautiful and virtuous young wife of a Roman general named Collatine; and it’s a tension made flesh in Camille O’Sullivan’s intense and beautiful musical performance of the poem, accompanied only by pianist Feargal Murray who co-wrote the songs, and produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of this year’s World Shakespeare Festival.

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On a magnificently-lit stage surrounded by great, blank portrait frames, Camille first takes on the character of the arrogant prince Tarquin, in his military greatcoat, rolling out his arguments and excuses for the appalling act of violence he intends. Then, at the moment of the rape, she becomes Lucrece herself, in a simple white shift, a woman robbed of something she values more than life itself; and a subtle and thoughtful moral actor in her own right.

It’s a terrible patriarchal logic, of course, that forces the victim of rape into self-destruction; and in an Edinburgh Festival full of the fierce and thrilling sounds of European polyphonic music and hard-edged Brechtian cabaret, I sometimes wondered whether O’Sullivan’s music - which favours a Tom-Waits-like deep-throated meditation, ranging upward to whispering melodic poignancy - really captures the full range of the story’s harsh logic, elemental horror, and fierce beauty. This is, though, a most elegant and powerful show, with a fine and passionate performance at its heart; and it reaffirms Camille O’Sullivan’s gift as an an actress-singer of tremendous range and intelligence, with a stage presence that can light up cities, and open hearts.

• Until 26 August