Writer: Ronald Duncan
Composer: Benjamin Britten
Director: Julia Burbach
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
It was a freak of nature, of course. But packing an audience into the Arcola’s sometimes starkly intimate space to experience a tightly told story of such violence in a heatwave produced an interesting effect. Everything feels closer, more physically imminent. The story laid out by director Julia Burbach highlights the dread power of self-important men when it comes to sex, ownership, women and a warped pride. Burbage notes in the programme she has been inspired in her direction by the #MeToo movement – her response is powerful, and would be even in the middle of winter
Set in a time of war between Rome and Greece (the affairs of men, their warmongering and struggle for monarchy, are at best a backdrop for the storyline of the rape) a night of drinking in the military camp creates a febrile mood among the men. A drunken discussion about the chastity of the soldier’s wives between Prince of Rome Tarquinius and some of his military leaders Junius and Collatinus results in a jealous and angry Junius goading Tarquinius into “testing” how chaste Lucretia, Collatinus’ wife with whom both Junius and the Prince are obsessed, really is. Riding through the night, through rivers and across the city, Tarquinius eraches Lucretia’s house, imposes himself on her hospitality and, as she later relates, “ravishes” her.
The language from the three men that lead to this is fascinating, taken into context with the modern movement to highlight and combat sexual violence. The veneration of chastity before stealing it, the language of ownership over the women is hard to take. Rape is discussed in terms of male desire – Tarquinius is “tired of willing women” and Junius and Tarquinius sneer that “Lucretia’s chastity is a lack of opportunity.” This is counterpointed well by how the devastation this attitude has on Lucretia manifests itself. Fear, wild shame, a mental break and a morning-after suicide gives the lie to the attitude she was a willing woman without a man to help her cheat. The story hits home hard with this perspective of the rape, the aftermath and the shock-wave of repercussions it has.
With such a great story, the performance is crucial to convey the nuance. Played beautifully by the 12-strong chamber orchestra under the baton of musical director Peter Selwyn, the music carries the listener, before jabbing us out of any possible relaxed complacency. The male chorus (a narrator, airing the thoughts of the male characters and acting as the moral guide to the story) for the first half of the opera’s run is Rob Murray – whose performance is inviting, charismatic and resonant. Matched well by Natasha Jouhl as the female chorus, the pair are the linchpins of the whole performance. Some of the acting and expression in the rest of the cast unfortunately feels a little overwrought which ruins the overall flow and impression of the piece. The drunken talk feels like someone’s impression of how drunk men act, the strange beat poetry section which narrates how Tarquinius prowls through the house looking for Lucretia is just plain strange.
It’s a powerful and muscular idea, the presentation is a little flat. As part of the Grimborn series to present opera in new and exciting ways, it’s a solid addition – this powerful storytelling is what’s really needed. The execution will not stand in the way of an audience gaining the true message of the piece.
Runs until 4 August 2018 | Image: Robert Workman