When I stepped out of a bitterly cold Feburary evening, into the (relative) warmth of St Peter’s college chapel, I was not prepared for the sheer onslaught of sound, fury, and very raw emotion that the cast of the rape of Lucretia were to provide me with. I would be the first to admit that I don’t really know anything about opera, and I’ve struggled in the past to connect with student productions of this inimitable art form. However, something about this production really struck a chord with me when I attended their dress rehearsal.
There is something eerie and fitting about staging this opera in the chapel – the high nave wall, embossed with stunning stained glass, backs the stage. This lends a sense of height to the production – the sound of some astonishing operatic performances, as well as the live orchestra completely fill this massive space – bringing out the pomp and might of Rome, and the full, evocative impact of Britten’s music. Director Peter Thickett has made some subtle choices in the staging of the rape itself; the highly choreographed menace of Tarquinius drawing out Britten’s lyrics – “The pity is that sin has so much grace, it moves like virtue”. This scene was the one that I had the most worries about being performed convincingly, and yet the understated violence of the act itself, compounded the narrators desperate laments to the empty bed left behind, brought me to the edge of tears.
Visually, this is a distinctly engaging production – subtle floral motifs abound through both the marketing and costumes (I highly recommend watching the profoundly disturbing trailer on the facebook event) – evoking a subdued sense of innocence without being too heavy handed. An absolute highlight for me was the lighting, which I watched being programmed over the course of the rehearsal. Two, automated and coloured spotlights on either side of stage move and change colour in line with the action. Shadows and lights throw various parts of the stage and chapel into sharp relief, immersing you in the events unfolding – particularly the aforementioned rape scene, where low, red light has the effect of mist, heightening the understated violence of the act.
This is a stunningly bold production, of incredible scale and vision. The wonderful combination of setting and talent really brings Britten’s work to life, in a way that its never come to life before for me – I strongly recommend checking out this exciting piece of opera, it will not be a waste of your time.
Ellie Gomes’s reflections following a conversation with Artistic Director Laura Grace Simpkins on the contemporary importance of this work.
Britten’s 1946 work ‘The Rape of Lucretia’ was banned across Europe when it was first written – however any students of Ancient History will be familiar with the shocking tale. In its simple form, the plot describes the prince, Sextus Tarquinius raping the wife of his friend Collatinus because he is intrigued by her respectable chastity. As a result of the violation, Lucretia commits suicide, overcome with shame in a society obsessed with female purity. Thus, Lucretia was praised as the moral paradigm of a Roman woman- chaste, honest and ultimately driven by the maintenance of her honour. Britten’s adaptation saw the transformation of the story, which depicted Lucretia as such a figure of piety, into a political drama, examining the vile mistreatment of women in the context of the Second World War. Either narrative deals with the sad reality of women’s agency as secondary to the desires of men.
From the outset, the opera is rife with complex ambiguities which reflect the universal theme it discusses: rape and its consequences. Whilst the title itself may come across as imposing, the crew were keen not to skirt away from the sad fact of the reality of rape, which is no less pressing than when Livy put pen to paper. The timing to stage such a play could not be more apt for our modern perception of consent, abuse and victim-shaming. According to the artistic director, whilst the rape scene is suitably traumatic, the emphasis is on emotional impact, rather than gratuity. Earnest conversation about sexual violence is immensely important in tackling it.
What can be guaranteed is that this play will leave you with a resonance of ambiguity and complexity, the play is harrowing, but so is rape, and that is precisely why it is such an important production to see. What makes dramatic tragedy in all of its forms, so thoroughly fundamental is that despite time period, whoever we are we are able to relate because the raw emotions we witness are real. This production will make you question the security of your experienced reality as you are returned to it. Life can be hard but the lives of those on stage, and our reactions to them prove that tragic situations can be overcome and offer us an insight into how such a crime can have lasting effect on a victim.
The Rape of Lucretia runs from the 3rd-5th March at 8pm in St Peter’s college chapel