Opening a stage adaptation of Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece this week of all weeks does feel like remarkably bad luck, just as the language and attitudes around rape have exploded into a furious public debate.
And, well, Shakespeare's gender politics date from 1594. And there's a difficulty with that, which has been carried over into the show.
I'd, perhaps unfairly, characterise it as an "RSC problem". That is to say, the RSC are incredibly good at clarity, and at getting Shakespeare's meaning across; at making everything the great man wrote absolutely crystal clear, even to an audience of early-modern novices. This is a great skill, and not one to be sniffed at. However, the flip-side of this is that it can often feel like naked endorsement, enforcement even, of Shakespeare's politics.
There's an extra issue here in that The Rape of Lucrece wasn't written for the stage, and has here been adapted as a song cycle by and for Irish chanteuse Camille O'Sullivan. You get a sense that, in order to create what in most respects is a fantastic achievement, the creative team were always going to end up with a first production that was a little obvious, because they got too immersed in the devising process.
As such, you get Camille come on in a sinister, Matrix-style trench coat as the poem begins recounting Tarquin's lust and approach of the famously faithful Lucrece's chamber, then as he rapes her, stripping off the coat to reveal a Lucrece in a virginal white shift straight out of an undergraduate devised piece on Victorian sexuality.
And when she stabs herself (you can't spoiler Ovid, right?) red petals fall from the ceiling. We already know red, white and black is just about the cheapest colour scheme going -- just ask the Nazi party -- so it's a shame to see it used here to underline an already unreconstructed tale of a pure, faithful, weak woman being ravished by a big, nasty, evil man, with a dénouement suggesting her suicide as a heroic solution.
Ranged against these factors are Camille's performance and songs (written with Feargal Murray) which go a long way toward making the above feel a little like nit-picking.
If you've not come across Camille before (she tends to perform mononymously) her usual shtick is doing barnstorming versions of songs by Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Nick Cave, and the like, in a kind of cabaret/French chanteuse/Kurt Weill style.
Here, she and Murray have managed the neat trick of synthesising songs that sound like they were originally by Bowie, Cave, Cohen, Lou Reed or Jacques Brel and have then been appropriated by her.
There's also a skill in the way that she shifts from this register, to something perhaps owing more to Patti Smith or Siouxsie Sioux following her minimal transformation from Tarquin to Lucrece. Camille's performance is blisteringly good, running through the body like cold water.
Now that this actually quite amazing work exists, though, I'd really love to see a different production by a better director; one who is more willing to wrestle with the difficulties that the text presents.
- by Andrew Haydon