If you've seen any of Camille O'Sullivan's cabaret shows you'll be a fan of their bipolar nature; she follows the goose-bump-inducing dark and dramatic eloquence of Nick Cave or Tom Waits with laugh-out-loud humour.

Her latest show to arrive on our shores, however, has none of the latter, but plenty of the spirit of the former. The writer of the lyrics this time is not Brels or Bowie but The Bard himself.

The UK's Royal Shakespeare Company's production of The Rape Of Lucrece see's O'Sullivan teaming up with long-time collaborator Feargal Murray to create music to accompany Shakespeare's words. It's not one of his most widely known works. It was not even written for the stage. But if you think about how eerily and completely Camille O'Sullivan inhabits the characters and stories she brings to the stage, you will be excited at the prospect of her solo performance of both victim Lucrece and perpetrator Tarquin.

Camille O'SullivanI put my hand up to ask you some questions because I've seen your performances a couple of times and know that you are a talented singer and story teller – and that you are really, really funny. Then I read what the new show is... there's not going to be very much funny in this new one, is there?
No, there isn’t the kind of madness and eccentric fun I like to inject into my own shows which usually sits beside very dark songs to add variety and respite, but as I am acting in someone else's production (RSC) it will be different to my own shows. But what this beautiful Shakespeare poem lacks in humour is made up by what interests me in theatre, an emotive piece where it provokes you to think and have an insight into the good versus evil. The language is full of beautiful imagery and I catch myself really enjoying the telling of the tale by becoming chameleon like being all the different characters bringing the piece to life through acting and song.

You generally use humour to punctuate the darker sections of your shows. How comfortable are you with doing serious stuff for an entire show?
I’m fine for it all be dark as the writing is by Shakespeare! I can blame him. As narrator you show an affection and kindness for the audience and make a connection by being in an intimate conversation with them as you bring them on this journey, as you become each character. The prose is extraordinary and brings you on a different emotive journey. Even though I love joy and fun I don’t think you always have to inject humour into a play to ‘entertain’ people and make sure they are happy, the intense drama of the piece can be very cathartic and uplifting emotionally. Maybe it s my Irish melancholic nature but some of the saddest, deepest writing has moved me, and makes the writing so memorable – maybe what draws me to songs of Nick Cave, tough, bitter sweet but feel all the better for singing/listening to it, uplifted. This piece wouldn’t work if we had joking/fun in it, it would probably detract from its hymnal noble quality.

You always put 100% of yourself into your performances... how are you left feeling at the end of each performance of Lucrece?
Shattered! As I leave the stage at the end of the show with the lights dimming after 85 minutes, I suddenly feel like my legs buckle right under me. I think it’s part nerves (“please don’t mess up Camille please remember the words, verses in order!!!”), and also that you are by yourself (accompanied by the lovely Feargal Murray on piano) for that time. The 100% of inhabiting the characters story holds the same here as my own shows, perhaps because it is such a poignant story and I’m pretty emotional I can’t separate myself from that and need to invest inhabiting the character, but that’s what I love about performing live

How did this production of The Rape Of Lucrece come about?
The director Elizabeth Freestone saw me perform in Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2008 and said she saw a narrative storyteller in song, a chameleon like performer that inhabits each character, and the darkness of the show too. She had the idea to turn the lesser known poem The Rape of Lucrece into a play making it part song and music, and thought I’d suit being a performer that told stories in song to perform it; the chameleon nature of my shows would suit being a solo performer becoming different characters, switching quite frequently throughout. We then discussed Feargal and I writing the music for the show and the three of us sat down to adapt the poem of three hours to the play of 85mins. We went through several audition/workshop processes with the RSC and they then offered us a contract and [agreed] to publish the new work. Familiar with his plays, it was lovely to discover words of Shakespeare I had not heard before

It's not one of Shakespeare's most widely known works and it was not written for the stage. What was the process like of translating it to the stage?
Very enjoyable – in a sense I know most of the other well known Shakespeare plays so it was lovely to discover beautiful new verse and have an immediate, instinctive reaction to reading the piece for the first time with no notion what it was about. Pretty quickly we could tell where the piece should be edited (i.e. take out the politics, the side longer descriptions of paintings, a maid, servant and really just focus on the intimate emotional story of a virtuous woman wronged and her perpetrator and how the characters go on a transformative journey of change due to what happens between them. The parts when the characters spoke were natural monologues that became songs. Music added to words always adds a more emotive charge and allows you to express yourself more in sadness or anger than if you were just speaking it. The different rhymes and rhythms of the piece dictated how the rhythm and speed of the song would be for each section

The songs – all new material?
Yes, except they are Shakespeare’s words, though some have been edited, that is, not all verses are included and some are lines repeated for choruses. The music was written by the talented Feargal Murray (pianist) and myself. We have worked together for years and are quite symbiotic now – a bit like finishing each other’s sentences musically when we work together. We also realised ‘Hey we must have learnt something after al these years!’ A nice surprise for us that it came more naturally than we thought. But then we had been interpreting and arranging other peoples songs for years, trying to make sense and make them our own in a way, not a tribute or copy!

I may be wrong here, but haven't you always performed covers in the past? Is this your first foray into writing – or performing – your own material?
No you’re not wrong. I usually sing and interpret other people’s songs, reinterpreting and making the song completely your own rather then a tribute or cover. I suppose like an actress taking a monologue and making it their own. So I was delighted to write music with Feargal to such great lyric and that we could take his words and try make them musically contemporary. It’s made me excited to now try a bit of writing after this tour is over!

It's fascinating that you are playing the role of Lucrece as well as Tarquin, the man who rapes her. How do you feel about each of these characters? Many actors say that to properly flesh out a character they have to find something in themselves that connects them to that character. Is this the case for you?
Well I suppose yes that is true to an extent, it’s certainly how I feel when singing other people’s songs so you can really inhabit them. But in the case of Tarquin what he does is pretty awful so I just try and tap in to the aspect of trying to understand him and why he did what he did, and that within us is the possibility for evilness, but that I would not follow through with it in my own personality. I’m fascinated that we all have so many different aspects of ourselves: vulnerability, innocence, darkness, kindness, joyfulness, and anger. Just knowing how to unlock them. I really wanted to get past the poetry of the piece and see both as three-dimensional emotive people not one dimensional; he is evil, she is virtuous. As in any interesting theatre they both almost start that way in their descriptions by the narrator (me) but go on a journey of transformation that shows his charm, conflict, defiance, then evilness, shame. And with her her virtue, innocence transforms after the rape and she almost changes completely (‘her blue blood turned to black in every vein’) to an almost animalistic reaction – hurt, anger, raging, vulnerable, destroyed to stoic dignity and resolve. Really the words are so beautiful in helping show those aspects of each of them – I just love immersing my self in the characters and the words to bring them to life! Interesting to be the one that harms the other and then the reaction, and as narrator you share the journey with audience helping them without making a judgement, let them work that one out themselves.

Do you play other characters in the performance?
Yes I start as me to say hello, then switch to narrator, then back and forth from narrator, Tarquin, Lucrece, and lastly her father Lucretius. I feel I’m surrounded by those characters while I’m on stage, stepping into each one, so don’t feel it’s just me on stage.

Do you use much of the original text or has it been tweaked?
It is the original text that verses have been taken out to edit it from a three-hour poem to a 85 minute play adapted to music. There were times we might repeat a line or verses to act as a chorus. Sometimes a verse may have been taken out of monologues to get the point we wanted straight across, but we tried not to mess with the intent and rhyme.

Do you have a favourite line or stanza from the original poem?
Oh plenty. Sometimes you are on stage and internally think oh I love that or oh I really understand that line even more now… Hmm let’s see. As an animal lover I love this line that describes her confusion:

As the poor frighted deer that stands at gaze, Wildly determining which way to fly, or one encompassed with a winding maze, who cannot tread the way out readily, so with herself is she in mutiny, to live or die which of the twain were better?”

I usually feel a bit wobbly after that line. I love the way through the metaphor of a poor little animal you can really feel for her confused and distressed plight.

For you, what is the most important aspect/point/theme of Lucrece's story?
Hmm... eeek! Hard to say... so many different aspects! Well as a woman, trying to show what it would feel to go through something awful like that and my emotional reaction to it, plus what it does to one's mind, never mind the violation of her body but even more more so her soul. The lines that render truth to what happens to her: “She hath lost a dearer thing than life, and he hath won what he would lose again, this momentary joy breeds months of pain, this hot desire converts to cold disdain, pure chastity is rifled of her store, and lust the thief, far poorer than before. Of what she was no semblance did remain.” It may have been written 400 years ago, but Shakespeare’s understanding of a woman’s psyche is incredible. We can still relate to it now as modern women or men. There are important understandings and lessons to be learnt. Even the story is dark and upsetting the beauty of the words and use of haunting metaphor make it a very uplifting, cathartic moving experience, a poem of violence and of beauty…

Finally, are you having any time off while in Australia? What do you plan to get up to in Melbourne?
Yes, we gave ourselves a few days of before we started in Sydney, (get over jet lag, catch up with Australian band, see the sights!) and then onto lovely Melbourne. We have three days off in the run and asked for three days off after. I love this city. I am going to head to Mad Hatters for a hats, Kinky Gerlinky for shoes, Degraves Lane for coffee, Mario’s for great Italian food and of course Brunswick Street. And a swim at St. Kilda’s baths, can’t wait!

The Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Rape of Lucrece is currently playing at the Seymour Centre in Sydney as part of the 2013 Sydney Festival. The Rape of Lucrece opens in Melbourne Jan 31. Read our review» 

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