Browse reviews

Fringe Online 2021

The Rape of Lucrece

Jermyn Street Theatre

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Mainstream Theatre, Poetry-Based Theatre, Short Plays, Solo Performance, Storytelling, Theatre, Tragedy

Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre and Online

Festival: ,

Low Down

With Jermyn Street’s Tom Littler has again led a groundbreaking team. The smallest producing theatre in the West End through lockdown has become the largest. The Footprints Festival boasts forty-three shows acted live and streamed online over three months.

Directed by Gareth Armstrong, Music by Simon Slater. Lighting by Johanna Town’s a single starkness of light and shadows. Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced. Till May 29th. Filmed and may be later available as stream.


JST’s mounting of poetry has recent roots in its podcasts of all Shakespeare’s Sonnets last year: you can reach them on YouTube. Of the forty-three Footprints productions from May to July, around twenty are poetry-based. Epic poetry too with the Odyssey and Ovid’s 15 Heroines are part of what JST now do.

Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece is his second long poem – from 1594 – written in a time of plague when theatres were closed. Published in May of that year, it sought to provide another kind of entertainment in partial lockdown, persuade everyone of his classical credentials: a poem to bear comparisons with serious court parables. Its lean periodicities though never caught on as the frolicsome Venus and Adonis had; it’s a sombre, magnificent work.

Do we read it? Gerard Logan‘s dramatic portrayal, directed with the simplest of means by Gareth Armstrong  suggest we should, but this is the way to know it. The sinewy quibbling verse with its tight Romanish arguments, its mirror inversions (try the father lamenting over his daughter) leap here into mournful life.

The early founding myth of how the Roman kings were banished in 510BC were part of a general education and readers knew it. About twenty-three years before Shakespeare tackled it – around 1571 – it had been a subject for a late Titian painting. Pathos and rape become Renaissance decoration. Almost wallpaper pathos – except to readers of this.

Prince Tarquin’s psychopathically jealous: of both his best friend Collatinus’ heroism, and Lucrece, his friend’s beautiful wife. Collatinus’ tacit, fatal boast of her virtue doesn’t help.

The subject here though, the wronged Roman wife of a general, has become progressively foregrounded, politics receding. By the time Britten wrote his opera of this subject in 1946, his librettist Ronald Duncan sought Christian parallels, with strange psychological twists. Now through various interpretations of complicity and victimhood we’ve arrived at #MeToo. Time to irradiate this unloved text of Shakespeare’s, see if it means more than it has.

Shakespeare explicitly terms Lucrece blameless in having caught the eye of the roistering king – parallels with the then queen’s father would have struck many. But Prince Tarquin, arrogant, lustful, does not court after a first rebuff.

Directed with clean economy by Gareth Armstrong  Logan’s both active with classical gestures – as with his only prop: a simple chemise with a breath of ghost in it; and attains an answering stillness. At others he accelerates narrative with ferocious inhabitings – of perpetrator and victim, father and husband, and chorus. Logan’s dark brown cassock attire mutes and ungenders everything but his head.

As Tarquin Logan braggadocios about as a roaring boy with the worst of them. He can also pray to the gods in a suppliant high register, a fulcrum moment of conscience before his inevitable nature unleashes itself. Logan angles his head to the shadowed way he’s lit and is transformed.

As Lucrece he tilts his head to the light, turns seraphic with innocence. More, he allows many pitches: polite welcome, a register of sexual unease, terror, pleading, desolation, tragic resolve. Lucrece has many more notes: a more terrible journey, and Logan deploys them all. At one point small beads of sweat seem transformed to tears.

Not long past Richard III we can see Shakespeare play with another, lesser up-front villain with one obscene act vectored from several motives at once. Here though it’s Lucrece whose memory lingers.

The swift denouement carries a charge of shock and inevitability: you don’t think it’s going to end this fast but Logan though not hurrying is remorseless. Though long, there’s no padding, and you feel emptied, with bleak consolatory history. Tarquin’s merely thrown out of Rome. The Republic starts. Did it really need this? This is the definitive way to experience this troublingly great, disturbingly unresolved poem.