Anyone who knows me well will know that I am an opinionated person. I don’t normally express my opinions publicly unless there’s a strong urge that pushes me to – usually something involving (what I think are) the best interests of important people or things. As such, this is a hard post to write.
The Rape of Lucrece is a narrative poem by William Shakespeare, based on the legend of Lucretia. In short, the plot is simple – a soldier tells his friend about how beautiful his wife is. Said friend goes to visit unannounced, and she welcomes him in because he’s her husband’s friend. The friend becomes enamoured with her and decides he’s going to ‘have’ her whether she agrees or not, and unsurprisingly, she doesn’t. He then flees, and she has to come to terms with her rape on her own. Upon her husband’s return home, she publicly announces the crime she’s victim to, and the name of her rapist. She then commits suicide.
Auckland Shakespeare Company have chosen a stage adaption of the poem for their first show, and as many other reviews will tell you, it’s an intense and stunning work. But I’m not here to review it, I’m here to discuss my response to it.
There’s no two ways about it, I was uncomfortable in this show. The whole point of this story is in the title of the poem – a woman is raped. Most going into this show would know that, and with this in mind it is a painful thing to watch unfold. It’s almost drawn-out, in the best possible way. The work is so refined and elegant in presentation, but the emotions are raw and confronting; truly presenting all angles and inspiring you to really think and understand each character.
For me this was extremely hard to watch in some aspects, but in others it gave me a sense of representation. I saw multiple pieces of myself in the titular character, and her portrayal spoke for me in ways I’ve never known how to say. There was no missing piece; performers offering all they had to give and in so, shining lights on all different facets of the complicated subject matter.
Perhaps it’s largely relative to my personal tie to it, but I genuinely cannot recall encountering a more confronting (yet beautiful) piece of theatre in my life. Never before have I caught myself trembling with emotion in the middle of a show, with gasps caught in my chest and a strong urge to scream along as she is onstage.
The complexity of my reaction to this performance is hard to describe. I felt an all-too-familiar tug in my heart when Lucrece gave her piece on honour, and questioned whether the rape was her fault. It raced when she named her abuser, and it broke when she couldn’t stand to see her future. I felt fear at the uneasy recognition of humanity in Tarquinius – a reminder that abusers are humans too, and can come from the unlikeliest of places. I understood helplessness and pain in Collatine that I’d seen in others but never fully recognized before. This comes not just from the immense energy and work put in by the cast, but from the poetry actually being spoken and understood. From the text and all it’s intricacies being unpacked, analysed and processed, and then carefully rebuilt with a level of care very rarely seen.
As someone who has worked with the director in the past (the inimitable Rita Stone), I know how much work will have gone into ensuring that the work does justice to the poetry and to the subject matter. Rita knows her way around iambic pentameter like nobody else, and she knows how to tell a story onstage. The cast matched and sometimes exceeded any actor I’ve ever seen in their understanding of the language. The cadence of sentences was always beautiful and appropriate, and the power behind them never faltered. But significantly more important than the mastery of the text was the effort every actor (and Rita) had clearly put into their role.
Calum Gittins as Tarquinius sent chills down my spine and my heart rate through the ceiling as he exhibited a predator painting himself human; someone battling with and then justifying their morally wrong urges. His complete embodiment of every aspect of Tarquin’s arc in the story was exceptional, but more so was the fact that when he spoke, it was as if I was taken back years. The emotional rollercoaster Tarquin exhibited matched the one I’d seen someone ride before – turn for turn, loop for loop. It’s a massive role, and from where I stand Calum has done so, so well to make his character understood, but not excused. My innate fear of Tarquin came from the familiarity I had with his depiction of that character and I can’t imagine the mental weight the role must have had for him to have been so accurate.
Daniel Watterson as Collatine brought me to the edge of tears multiple times as he expressed his immense concern, love and loyalty to Lucrece. In Collatine I saw a spitting image of loved ones – utterly helpless to the horrible events playing out, but never wavering in their love and dedication. When he returned upon her request to find Lucrece clad in black, his concern and clear panic at her disposition had me torn in two – guilt for what I could see others must have felt, and empathy for Lucrece’s removed state of mind. But despite her reluctance to discuss the abuse, he loved her regardless. When she took her life to erase her pain, he didn’t move on – he grieved, and swallowed his loss to set things right. The grief Daniel gave through Collatine was the most realistic portrayal of grief I have seen on stage to date. It was a too-late wake up call for me, a reminder that if I had done as Lucrece did and I wanted to, I wouldn’t have saved anyone’s honour or made their lives easier. I would have caused unimaginable pain and scars on hearts of the ones I love most. I saw the heart rip out of Collatine’s chest as Lucrece died, and in that moment I felt so grateful that I had chosen to stay with my loved ones.
As so many have said already, Anthea Hill portrayed Lucrece perfectly. She portrayed a swift descent into depression that was so frighteningly real, I felt I was in a nightmare. The desperate fight she gave to keep herself afloat as Tarquin tried to drown her dignity, the confusing role of blame in the aftermath and the strong sense of self-failure felt more like a recollection than a portrayal – as if Anthea were enacting my memories rather than a script. I saw her bring all of Lucrece’s emotions to the surface without ever coming across as an unlucky heroine, but rather as a woman fighting to take back control after it was stolen from her. I felt an urge to stand with Lucrece as she took control for herself and ensured her abuser didn’t get away. I saw another person experiencing things I knew too well, and in every word she spoke, I stopped feeling alone. On that black box stage, Anthea gave a piece of her heart to every single person in the room and begged them to hold her hand as Lucrece navigated her way around the trauma, and I cannot express my gratitude that she did. Through the work Anthea has put in to her Lucrece, the audience can’t help but admire her. In the love and pride we were asked to feel for Lucrece, her suicide hit all the more harder. The self-control exhibited in her final moments and the swift but gentle goodbyes she gave were absolutely devastating, but once again were distressingly real. Composed and orderly, planned and finalised, yet full of emotion. In every way, this was a portrayal that meant more than the world to me. Thank you, Anthea.
Finally, the Maid and the Chorus were perfect supplements to the three heavy bodies of this play. The Maid gave an outside voice to the events occurring and was the moral reminder in the back of our minds, while the Chorus, expertly choreographed, lent themselves to the scenescape well. They played the demonic, evil side of the mind – first with Tarquinius and then accompanying the image of him in haunting Lucrece’s psyche. Neither Maid or the chorus interrupted the very raw and openly painful telling of the story (as some choruses can do), but they heightened the battles the characters had to face and kept the audience following the story without ever dropping the passion and truth the central performers carried. Sheena Irving put so much into the Maid – echoing the despair and helplessness of Collatine, but with a fire of morality that we only saw otherwise in Lucrece herself. She was an exceptionally passionate narrator, and one that the story was all the better for; almost an exhibit of post-trauma hindsight as she retold the story with a very personal level of love and grief that felt removed from the exact moment onstage, but never took away from it.
In this work, so many people have been given a voice in poetry not seen in this way before. The words being spoken are Elizabethan, but the story they tell is relevant as ever, as is a lot of Shakespeare. The difference here is that Lucrece never felt embellished or dramatic, it just felt poignant and raw. It left me feeling unwilling to clap, but because all of the pain I had just witnessed felt real. Rather than applause, it felt like it deserved a moment’s silence. The work that has evidently gone into this production is mammoth, and none of it has been in vain as Lucrece told a story that many, many people have lived before, but is rarely spoken about and is even more rarely displayed with such veracity and in such grace. Works that are this open and honest are vital to our progression as a society, and this has been seen in the outstanding feedback the show received. I’ve seen multiple posts exclaiming the level on which people were moved by this show, and the importance of displaying these subjects in such a revealing light. There were people who felt enlightened, who felt saddened and who felt shocked. I, for one, felt represented. In the exhibition of Lucrece’s experience I saw a perfect parallel to my own, and the response I saw in the audience and in the telling of the story reminded me that this was nothing to be brushed off, as it has been before. It gave me validity, and what’s more, it gave me pride. In seeing a character I admired so strongly, I recognised that I too had survived.
Everyone involved in this production did the story and their characters justice at every single point in the show; the energy and conviction they brought to the telling was vital, and they never let it drop. This is what made the show mean so much to me – I was never shown, even for a moment, that these experiences were anything less than real. It felt like Lucrece’s story was taken and presented seriously, not simply a plot line to be enacted. I could feel and see the energy that had gone into the show; the staging was elegant and simple in order to let the events speak for themselves, and I felt like Rita had made every effort to balance the themes, emotion and content in a way that respected the subject, but told the whole story. This was a piece of theatre that gave us reality in plain packaging, with only an tasteful bow for decoration. It was, and I hope will be, appreciated by many in years to come. The subject matter is horrific and painful, but it is real and needs to be shown – it is vital theatre, plain and simple.
All photographs featured belong to Adam Baines for Auckland Shakespeare Company.
I am happy to receive questions on mental health or abuse topics, but I will not give advice and I will exercise my right to refuse to answer should I feel I need to.
You are welcome to contact me on Twitter or email me at email@example.com.
If you or someone you know needs support, please do not hesitate to ask for help. I promise it will be worth it.
Here are some excellent support providers (New Zealand-based):
Lifeline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 354
Depression Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 111 757
Healthline (open 24/7) – 0800 611 116
Samaritans (open 24/7) – 0800 726 666
Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865
Youthline (open 24/7) – 0800 376 633.
Alcohol Drug Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 787 797.
For further information, contact the Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812).