Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Monday 17 June 2019

Powerful voice of a victim

  • Review: The Rape of Lucrece, Gate Theatre, until April 7
Camille O'Sullivan.
Camille O'Sullivan.

William Shakespeare’s poem about the beautiful and virtuous Lucretia, wife of Collatine, contains beauty of language and also terrible violence. It is a rape narrative, set just before the establishment of the Roman Republic in the early 6th century. Roman soldier Tarquin is so inflamed by his colleague Collatine’s rapturous account of his wife’s beauty and chastity — he is especially inflamed by the chastity part — that he goes to her home and rapes her.

This stage show is made from the Shakespeare poem, and has been adapted by Elizabeth Freestone, Feargal Murray and Camille O’Sullivan, with Freestone directing, and Murray and O’Sullivan creating original music.

Rape narratives are problematic. They pander to the audience impulses for titillation and sadism. Shakespeare is well aware of this. He fills the first half of the sequence with an effective build up of pre-rape tension, complete with the assailant creeping through doors at the dead of night. In this version, however, Lucrece is given plenty of space to articulate her feelings about the crime.

 The poetry is both spoken and sung. O’Sullivan moves through the 80 minutes of material, sometimes embodying Tarquin the rapist, sometimes Lucrece the victim, and eventually Lucrece’s husband and father. Her line readings are underpinned with a strong gestural physicality, wonderfully directed by Freestone, that so clarifies the knotty Shakespearean language. Her intense moments of suffering are finely judged and she embodies the tyranny of Tarquin with powerful persuasiveness.

The brutal inequality of the physical presences of Tarquin and Lucrece are invoked in Lily Arnold’s clever design by a pair of huge black boots and a pair of delicate, white-satin court shoes. O’Sullivan wears a large, military-style coat for the first 40 minutes, when the poem is more concentrated on the actions of Tarquin. After the rape, the coat comes off to reveal a shapeless white slip, as the story moves to an exploration of the consequences for Lucrece. O’Sullivan’s performance is brilliant and touching. She is a major star and this poetic and musical sequence is an ideal vehicle for her talent. Murray’s music and piano accompaniment is subtle at times and perfectly strong at others, providing a sweet setting for O’Sullivan’s fierce voice, which veers from sweetly lyrical to gravel-textured power.

Lucrece kills herself to eradicate her shame, and her body is paraded through the streets of Rome, causing her assailant to be banished and the establishment of the Roman Republic.Her husband and father use her ruination to create political change. For the woman, the rape narrative rarely ends well. But O’Sullivan’s magnificent performance at least gives the victim a powerful voice.

House-extension play built on humour

This comedy by Isobel Mahon was first seen in the little Dolmen theatre, above The Magic Carpet pub in Cornelscourt, in 2016. Selma Mae, played by the author, has recently emerged from St Mel's psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt. Her "genius" architect husband Alan has designed a shiny new extension for their Carrickmines home, and she has reluctantly organised a party to celebrate. As the party unfolds, so do a variety of hidden truths.

This is an old-fashioned play, in the sense that it happens in real time and there are no meta-theatrics or technical stunts. It is the kind of middle-class comedy that is a rarity on the Irish stage. Mahon's writing is witty and on point, particularly when it comes to the house-extension industry of the boom (the play is set in 2006).

Her treatment of mental illness is pitched for laughs, but there is a constant undertow of seriousness.

Director Caroline FitzGerald steers the party along with perfect pacing. Mahon's performance as the depressed central character exudes the passive helplessness of the psychiatrically unwell. Claudia O'Carroll offers a tour-de-force comic turn as the new-agey Chloe from two doors up who "hasn't chopped a vegetable since 2003".

Maria McDermottroe is funny as the daft wrong-headed mother Carmel. Aisling O'Neill, as the sister Maeve, drips charisma around the stage and Rose Henderson, as the obsessive-compulsive friend from the psychiatric hospital, brings an anarchic energy to proceedings.

Martin Cahill's design is perfunctory and not as well-heeled or sophisticated as the play and venue demand. There is a crucial plot detail about damage to the extension that is not well reflected visually. The play loses its comedy chops about 10 minutes before the end, and takes a swerve in a more serious direction, not entirely successfully. But overall, the satirical edge is sharp and makes for a very funny night out.

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