The Rape of Lucrece in Derry~Londonderry

The UK City of Culture welcomes the Royal Shakespeare Company's adaptation of Shakespeare's epic poem

It’s a poem, it’s over 1,800 lines long, and takes two hours to read aloud from start to finish. To put it kindly, The Rape of Lucrece is far from being William Shakespeare’s most user-friendly piece of writing, particularly for attention-challenged 21st century audiences.

And yet a staging of the piece, by The Royal Shakespeare Company, has unexpectedly become one of the runaway successes of the past year on the cultural circuit, drawing strong reactions at the Edinburgh Festival, then touring to Australia, Poland and the Dublin Theatre Festival.

This week it reaches the Waterside Theatre in Derry~Londonderry, for a three-night residency as the RSC’s contribution to the UK City of Culture 2013 celebrations. The Derry performances are doubly appropriate, as this Rape of Lucrece was co-created by a native of the city, Feargal Murray, with his longtime collaborator Camille O’Sullivan.

It’s fair to say that Shakespeare’s epic poem was probably the last thing on Murray’s and O’Sullivan’s minds when they were first approached about the possibility of adapting it.

‘What happened was that a director from England called Elizabeth Freestone saw Camille and myself performing at the Festival Hall in London,’ explains Murray. ‘Because in her normal gigs Camille interprets and portrays the songs of Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Bob Dylan, among others, she inhabits a lot of dark male characters. She’s chameleon-like on stage.

‘Elizabeth had always wanted to do Lucrece and didn’t quite know how. But when she saw Camille perform all these different characters, and her theatricality, she immediately thought this would transfer perfectly to The Rape of Lucrece.’

The dark male character in Shakespeare’s poem is ‘lust-breathed’ Tarquin, son of the Roman king Lucius Tarquinius. Overcome by desire, he rapes Lucrece, a married noblewoman. Theirs are the two main ‘voices’ in the RSC adaptation, and those of Lucrece’s father and the poem’s narrator also feature.

And what of the music? Murray readily concedes that it was ‘very daunting’ sitting with a blank page in front of him, wondering how to find the melodies to do Shakespeare's poem justice. ‘We just thought it’s so long, and there’s so much going on,’ he remembers.

‘There’s a lot of politics in it, but there was a lot of emotional text as well from the characters, which we thought would be better put to music than the politics. So we went through the poem for four or five days, and got rid of a lot of the politics, and whittled it down to one hour and 20 minutes.’

Once the basic editing was done, Murray found the musical ideas flowed freely. ‘We started seeing things appearing that would fit the text of a song,’ he says. ‘Hot-spots that summed up Tarquin’s feelings and Lucrece’s feelings. We put those to songs, and ended up with ten of them.’

Murray also created musical motifs to underscore specific sections of the narrative, parts of which are also spoken by O’Sullivan without accompaniment. ‘Basically we did it all in a week,’ he comments matter-of-factly.

The Rape of Lucrece

 

‘For me, melodies just come from the rhythm of the words, and The Rape of Lucrece is specially emotional. Shakespeare’s language is just outrageously beautiful. Every sentence is laden with such power, you really have to almost distance yourself from it sometimes.’

As if the poetry itself isn’t potent enough, there is also the question of Lucrece’s emotive subject matter. Did Murray and O’Sullivan find, in examining the 400-year-old poem so closely, that it still had anything relevant to say on the subject of rape and male violence to contemporary audiences?

‘It’s exactly then as it is now, nothing seems to have changed,’ responds Murray. ‘At the time we unveiled the show at the Edinburgh International Festival there were major things in the news that week about rape, and since then we’ve had the incidents in India.

‘Camille said that when she was reciting these words of Shakespeare, she was thinking about those news feeds that she had seen before she went into the theatre. She marvels at Shakespeare’s understanding of the female psyche. She said it just felt exactly the same, right now today.’

The startling relevance of Shakespeare’s poem, and the unusual, strangely powerful manner in which Murray and O’Sullivan have chosen to present it, have not been lost on audiences and critics.

One national paper hailed the performance of ‘the magnificent O’Sullivan’. Another praised the ‘agonisingly responsive’ nature of Murray’s music, which he plays live on a grand piano.

Murray is particularly gratified by the reactions of audience members who told him they had previously been ‘scared’ of going to see Shakespeare. ‘They are saying it feels very accessible, because Camille is a very clear and emotional story teller. She’s got so much charisma, you just watch her all the time.’

Murray and O’Sullivan themselves were uncertain initially about the type of show they had created. ‘We were unsure,’ he recalls. 'We were just enjoying it. We had never tackled Shakespeare before, and we were hoping that we had done it justice.’

Reassurance came rapidly, however, from those who had commissioned the piece in the first place. ‘The folks at the RSC seemed to think that we were on to a new format of sorts,’ he says. ‘We were informed by the company that it was feeling really good, and was really fresh to them.’

Fresh is one thing Camille O’Sullivan is definitely not, after a typical performance. ‘When she sings, she’s known for getting the truth across, and people feel it when they watch her,’ adds Murray. ‘She really lives these characters that she’s playing.

‘I’ve constantly marvelled at Camille over 15 years. If she cries during a song, she means it, she is not a false performer. When Camille sings Shakespeare, she’s going through the emotions of Tarquin, who rapes someone. And she’s going through the emotions of Lucrece, having been raped and wanting to commit suicide.

‘She comes off stage and falls in a heap in the dressing room, she really feels it. I’m just there as Camille’s support, I have to keep myself from the emotion. It’s a beautiful work of art.’

The Rape of Lucrece runs in Waterside Theatre, Derry~Londonderry from October 18 – 20.