Disturbing and superb

By Bradley Storer

“We’re going to tell you the story of the Rape of Lucrece, a tale full of both beauty… and violence. Be warned – there may be a bit of singing.” With this simple introduction, Irish cabaret star Camille O’Sullivan launched us headfast into an evening of hearty and full-blooded (in more ways than one) story-telling. O’Sullivan, along with her collaborator and accompanist Feargal Murray, has taken Shakespeare’s classic poem and transformed it into what feels like a chamber opera written for a single voice. The performance, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, combines Shakespeare’s text in both spoken form and as songs set to original music by O’Sullivan and Murray.

Photo by Keith Pattison

The set is simple, consisting of a backdrop of several windows and the stage floor littered with numerous piles of manuscript. The only other element is the touching presence of two pairs of shoes at opposite ends of the stage – a pair of delicate white slippers, and a large pair of dark leather military boots, representing cleverly the characters of Lucrece and her rapist Tarquin.

O’Sullivan as a storyteller and actress is magnificent, beginning simply telling the narrative but slowly transforming before our eyes into both the menacing and malevolent Tarquin, and the innocent, tragic Lucrece. Filling the stage with her gargantuan presence, O’Sullivan paints the picture of the story and each of its characters effortlessly. With just a sardonic flick of her hand, she can make Shakespeare’s poetry as achingly and horrifically relevant as anything written today. Her wondrous singing voice can soothe and terrify in equal measure, ranging from a low seductive murmur to a full-bodied shriek of agony.

This is not an evening for the faint-hearted – the performance does not shy away from displaying the full horror of events, O’Sullivan so committedly and perfectly embodying the pain of rape and its aftermath that at times it is almost too horrible to watch. Even in Tarquin’s part of the narrative, O’Sullivan shows us the deep ambivalence and disgust which co-exists with the man’s darker impulses. The amazing lighting design throughout contributes massively to the many worlds, interior and exterior, within which the story plays out.

Do not come to this show looking for a relaxing night at the theatre – however at the end of the harrowing tale, we are left with not only sadness but also the deep, primeval pleasure of an epic tale told with immaculate skill.

Directed by Elizabeth Freestone

Dates: January 31st – February 10th , 8pm

Venue: The Sumner, Southbank Theatre, 140 Southbank Boulevard

Tickets: $85 / Conc $77 / Youth $33

Bookings: or 03 8688 080