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Review: Devastating and atmospheric storytelling in the RSC's Rape of Lucrece

Camille O'Sullivan performs the Rape of Lucrece

Camille O'Sullivan who performs The Rape of Lucrece with her long term musical collaborator Feargal Murray was approached to work on the piece after director Elizabeth Freestone saw her at the Edinburgh Festival.

O'Sullivan is enviably multi-talented. Architect, portrait painter and singer she is renowned for her own interpretation of narrative songs from the likes of Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen.

She'd never acted before let alone recited a line of Shakespeare but Freestone saw something in her Edinburgh show that made her think she'd be perfect for a performance-led rendition of Shakespeare's epic poem, The Rape of Lucrece (pronounced Loo-cree-sha, in case you were wondering). Working with musician Murray, the three have produced something that is quite unique, powerful and utterly moving.

Little has been changed from Shakespeare's epic poem about the violent defilement of the chaste Lucrece by the Prince Tarquin who is unable to control his carnal desires. Some of the politics of has been cut to focus on the two central characters, a few lines are repeated when turned into song and just the odd line added.

O'Sullivan starts as Tarquin using a mixture of spoken word for the descriptive segments of the poem and songs for the first person narrative. She beautifully and powerfully captures the inner turmoil of Prince as he battles his physical feelings for the beautiful Lucrece. The tragic heroine's voice is heard next in similar style rolling through a devastating array of emotions as she comes to terms with life and the consequences of the violent attack.

The poem is an early work of Shakespeare but the range and emotional insight is so remarkable you can't help thinking about what it may have ultimately inspired and informed.

O'Sullivan's performance and Murray's piano accompaniment are the perfect vessel for the emotional complexity contained within Shakespeare's words and the result is compelling, powerful and haunting.

In a post show Q&A it was revealed that music and performance work in harmony with just a few defining chords to the written score, the rest is improvised. Murray and O'Sullivan have worked together for so longer the two are beautifully in tune with the former adjusting the music to nuances in any particular performance. It makes the piece all the more remarkable in its fluidity and polish.

Sometimes the emotions do take over and Shakespeare's words become a little lost but the performance and music keeps you tethered firmly to the story.

It is a bold piece both in being by a first time Shakespeare performer but also in its unique combination of storytelling, music and song. O'Sullivan proves to be a captivating, imaginative and skilled performer.

The Rape of Lucrece has already been performed around the world such is its universal appeal and runs at the Swan Theatre until July 2 before transferring to the South Bank Centre in London for four nights.

For a taste, here is one of the songs: