BRITAIN'S Royal Shakespeare Company brings a one-woman adaptation of The Rape of Lucrece, performed by Irish cabaret star Camille O'Sullivan, to the Melbourne stage this week. It's an interesting prospect, and for a famous theatre company steeped in the traditions of Shakespearean performance, an adventurous one.
The Rape of Lucrece is early Shakespeare, the second of two long narrative poems (the other being Venus and Adonis) he wrote during a vicious outbreak of plague in 1592-93 that decimated the populace, closing London's theatres for two consecutive summers.
Shakespeare's fellow playwright Thomas Dekker described the horror as if pestilence had declared war on London: ''Death hath pitched his tents in the Sinfully polluted Suburbes … the Plague is Marshall of the field … Burning Feavers, Boyles, Blains and Carbuncles … and no voice but Tue, Tue, Kill, Kill.''
The Bard himself would use the plague as a tragic plot device in Romeo and Juliet the following year. At the time though, the young playwright had to worry about imminent death as well as, with the stages down, putting food on the table.
Based on a Roman story he adapted from Livy and Ovid, The Rape of Lucrece tells of a notorious crime - prince Tarquin's rape of his friend Collatine's chaste wife Lucretia and her torment and suicide in the wake of it - that became a founding legend of the Roman republic.
Shakespeare strips its political dimension in favour of the personal. From a theatrical standpoint, its chief interest lies in the fact it gives voice to both rapist and victim.
It's a poem written in a highly artificial rhetoric style, with an intensely human rendering of violation and despair peeping through the curtains of all the literary ornament.
Tarquin is both addicted to the idea of rape and consumed by fear and self-hatred - a self-destructive pattern a mature Shakespeare returned to in Macbeth, where he shows how murder ''with Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his design/Moves like a ghost''.
For Lucrece, he creates a trajectory that moves from vulnerability and shock to thundering invective and an ornate set-piece that takes in the entire Trojan War. That last part interferes with the dramatic flow (and has been excised from the RSC adaptation) but the rage and pain of the rape victim is piercing.
The poem wasn't intended for performance, and that holds creative challenges and rewards for any theatrical treatment.
The artistic director of the Malthouse, Marion Potts, has a better understanding than most of what's at stake when bringing narrative poetry to the stage. She recently directed a piece based on Dorothy Porter's verse novel Wild Surmise, and her credits include a stage adaptation of Venus and Adonis for Bell Shakespeare in 2008.
''I love the openness of adapting poetry. It gives you a lot of freedom, but finding a performance style that works takes time and imagination,'' Potts says, adding that her Venus and Adonis went through several phases of development.
This Lucrece seems set to do something similar. The text has been radically pared down, with selected stanzas sung by O'Sullivan as original modern ballads, accompanied by pianist and composer Feargal Murray.
And O'Sullivan will have to find a way to inhabit the extremity of two opposite figures, more like the anguished ghosts of the main characters, in pain.
It won't be easy. The 1855 lines of the poem, after all, can't just be slapped on the boards without failing, and you need something more than simple recitation to hold the audience.
But O'Sullivan has a dark and compelling presence as a performer and with the weight and experience of the RSC behind her, this production is sure to be a fascinating experiment.
The Rape of Lucrece plays The Sumner at the Southbank Theatre from January 31 to February 10.