SENSITIVE AND CHALLENGING SUBJECT EXPLORED WITH GREAT INTEGRITY
LUCRECE: An Adaptation of Shakespeare’s the Rape of Lucrece
Text by William Shakespeare
Concept and Direction by Fiona McNamara
Produced by Joel Baxendale for Binge Culture Collective
at Toi Poneke Gallery, 61 Abel Smith Street, Wellington
From 19 Apr 2012 to 11 May 2012
Reviewed by John Smythe, 20 Apr 2012
Lucrece: An Adaptation of Shakespeare's the Rape of Lucrece is the starting point – and focal point, when it's on – of an audio-visual art installation project at the Toi Poneke Gallery until 11 May. (The other elements are there to be seen from 10am-8pm weekdays, 10am-4pm weekends until 12 May.)
Director Fiona McNamara (who conceived the whole project), has worked with two performers – Ally Garrett and Isobel MacKinnon – and a range of designers to evoke the first third of Shakespeare's epic poem.
When unwise Collatine extols the virtues of his "fair love, Lucrece the chaste" – "What priceless wealth the heavens had him lent / In the possession of his beauteous mate" [note "possession"] – to "lust-breathed Tarquin" (who, by the way, has recently caused his father-in-law to be murdered in order to possess a kingdom), Tarquin cannot help himself. Or rather he assumes he has the right to help himself, by prevailing on her hospitality when she is at home alone.
Lucrece "Little suspecteth the false worshipper / For unstain'd thoughts do seldom dream on evil" and so is unable to "read the meaning of his eyes" nor predict his "loathsome enterprise". It is not easy language for performance; it is much harder to convey its import than through the blank verse of Shakespeare's plays. Yet Garrett and MacKinnon bring a buoyant fluency and deep understanding to their delivery which communicates by intuitive osmosis.
Intriguingly, as the two women embody and express Collatine's adoration of beauty and virtue and Tarquin's robust lust, they seem to glory in female sensuality and sexuality: a brilliant touch that declares a woman's right to be sensuous and sexual without abnegating the right to chose; to give or withhold consent.
When "By reprobate desire thus madly led, / The Roman lord marcheth to Lucrece's bed", it is when Tarquin "draw[s] the cloud that hides the silver moon" that curtains are flung open to reveal a jug sitting in a dish upon a pedestal. A triptych screen confronts us with naked female flesh, relentlessly stroked by the cameras …
A large radio mic is used to even more confronting phallic effect. Recorded narration frees the women to physicalise the experience at times, and to add heavy breathing to the mix. The stroking of the mic on the flimsily clad body of Lucrece (MacKinnon) by the Tarquin figure (Garrett) adds a sense of tactile terror as his disembodied voice expounds the depth of his misogynistic jealousy:
"Lucrece," quoth he, "this night I must enjoy thee:
If thou deny, then force must work my way,
For in thy bed I purpose to destroy thee:
That done, some worthless slave of thine I'll slay,
To kill thine honour with thy life's decay;
And in thy dead arms do I mean to place him,
Swearing I slew him, seeing thee embrace him.
"So thy surviving husband shall remain
The scornful mark of every open eye;
Thy kinsmen hang their heads at this disdain,
Thy issue blurr'd with nameless bastardy …"
I have to say reading these words curdles my guts more profoundly than hearing them did, maybe because the technology of the presentation was distracting my attention. I can't help but wonder whether a male voice, subjectively in the role of Tarquin, would have more impact when the mode of telling moves from live evocation and reportage to the voice-over of the perpetrator.
The stanzas that cover the act itself are surprisingly juxtaposed with the pouring of water over the naked Lucrece: an image of lyrical beauty were it not for the nightgown stuffed into her mouth. This is a typical example of how the production challenges us to grapple with the reality of what is happening despite the poetic presentation.
The lines that tell of Tarquin's stealing guiltily away (without having killed her, physically, or slain a slave) get lost beneath the soundscape but we do tune into the all-too-real shattering injustice of her feeling shame in the wake of his atrocious actions.
Shakespeare brings astonishing insight to the perspectives of both Lucrece and Tarquin and winds the story around a strong moral centre. A range of motives are canvassed for Tarquin's actions, Lucrece's response is profoundly felt … and it is at sh shame phase that the 30-minute performance ends. Later lines – e.g. "So of shame's ashes shall my fame be bred" – are imprinted on the performance area and around the gallery space.
There are many questions, issues and perspectives to wrestle with, ponder and discuss concerning both the content and the style of presentation and their implications on many levels – not to mention what happens later in the poem (she kills herself and her body is further objectified by being paraded through the streets of Rome, and Tarquin gets away with "everlasting banishment" – so the post-performance discussion should be regarded as key to the total experience.
I haven't engaged with all the other elements of the installation yet but the discussion on opening night suggests there is value to be had in doing so before you watch the performance.
Fiona McNamara and her team are to be applauded for exploring this sensitive and challenging subject with such integrity. This is arts practice at its most relevant.
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