Powerful ... Camille O'Sullivan plays both victim and perpetrator in <em>The Rape of Lucrece</em>.

Powerful ... Camille O'Sullivan plays both victim and perpetrator in The Rape of Lucrece.

THE RAPE OF LUCRECE
Royal Shakespeare Company
Seymour Centre, January 22

A GRAND piano, piles of stacked paper and a pair of elegant white shoes on the stage set a tone of eloquent austerity, onto which Camille O'Sullivan marched in an unflattering black coat, carrying a heavy pair of boots as though tidying up after boorishness.

Stepping out of character for some welcoming remarks, she introduced her text, Shakespeare's narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece (1594), like a modern nightclub take on a bard sitting down at her lyre.

The white and the black shoes  are a nod to the powerful dualities that drive the poem's remarkable language  – virtue and beauty, lust and chastity, violent debasement and passive purity, vanquishment and loss.

O'Sullivan herself embodied those dualities as singer and actor, male and female, and,  demandingly at the climax, as both perpetrator and victim of rape.

Although the poetic narrative demands a single voice and would be ruined if split into separate parts, encompassing the range of characterisations required – all within the magisterial rhetoric of Shakespeare's verse – was an audacious and ambitious task to which O'Sullivan brought courageous intensity and communicative finesse.

Elizabeth Freestone's direction created subtly varied pace and movement, allowing a concise language of carefully crafted gestures to reinforce and enrich the dramatic arc, while Vince Herbert's lighting created poetic moments with telling simplicity.

The songs – simple modern ballads composed by O'Sullivan and Feargal Murray, who also accompanied at the piano – varied and broke up the narrative pace.

O'Sullivan's spoken delivery was more affecting than her singing, though she could certainly put a song across. When speaking, she brought out the rhythmic malleability of the words, which the songs tended to straitjacket with a repeated riff over a limited textural range.

Yet it is remarkable that whatever performance or presentation genre is applied to Shakespeare, the strength of his language always prevails.

O'Sullivan responded  to the need for a dramatic build-up by increasing intensity, sometimes to startling effect. Yet so strong is Shakespeare's rhetorical tone, it sometimes begged for greater  restraint in delivery, such as O'Sullivan found at the closing entrance of Lucrece's family.

This was a bold and polished attempt, bringing a poetic masterpiece to vivid theatrical life.