The Rape of Lucretia
Reviewed – 25th July 2018
“Julia Burbach’s production sheds an interesting new light on the narrative, the characters and, in this case, the audience too”
You know you’re not going to expect an easy night of it when the central theme of a show is rape. Benjamin Britten’s chamber opera premiered in 1946 and has sometimes provoked furious protest. So, it is interesting to see how it fares in the wake of the ‘Me Too’ movement. As one of the centrepieces of the ‘Grimeborn’ festival at the Arcola Theatre, Julia Burbach’s production of “The Rape of Lucretia” sheds an interesting new light on the narrative, the characters and, in this case, the audience too.
It is an intense piece, to say the least, but one that is ideal for the intimacy of the staging at the Arcola. The complexities of the structure are more clear-cut when witnessed close up. The male and female chorus hold the narrative together and they very much involve the audience; shaping the emotional response as they uncover the events. It’s almost as if the chorus are discovering it all for the first time themselves.
Natasha Jouhl and Rob Murray, as female and male chorus respectively, explain the situation in Rome. The city has sunk into depravity while fighting off a Greek invasion and Tarquinius (Benjamin Lewis), Collatinus (Andrew Tipple) and Junius (James Corrigan) are drinking together. While out fighting they have been sexually betrayed by their wives, with the exception of Collatinus whose wife, Lucretia (Bethan Langford), has remained faithful. Junius goads Tauquinius into testing Lucretia’s chastity. To cut a fairly short story shorter, Tarquinius rises to the bait, seeks out Lucretia, and in a bumbled attempt at seduction rapes her.
What is clever in Burbach’s production is the way she makes the audience feel complicit. When Langford circles the space after the rape scene, she stalks the audience with accusing eyes, and we feel that we are voyeuristic accomplices to the rape. We have watched, yet did nothing to intervene. There is a real nobility in Langford’s performance that empowers her character despite the tragic consequences of her violation.
Britten’s score is an acquired taste, but the twelve strong orchestra under Peter Selwyn’s Musical Direction make it immediately accessible. From its mixture of rich tension and sparse atmosphere the cast are able to wring out the emotion. It is beautifully acted and sung, particularly Jouhl and Murray whose articulation leaves no stone unturned as they uncover the action.
It is easy to see why Britten’s opera is perceived as a story of despair and moral emptiness, and often the final message of redemption and Christian suffering seems shoehorned onto the narrative. In Burbach’s intimate production, though, the final poignant notes, rather than resounding with empty absolution, leave us wanting to dig deeper into the subtext and think more about the characters’ motivations. And how we feel about them. It’s not a comfortable piece. But thoroughly engaging.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Robert Workman
The Rape of Lucretia
Arcola Theatre until 4th August