BWW Review: THE RAPE OF LUCRETIA, Arcola Theatre
When the generals of Rome return unexpectedly from war, they find their wives have taken lovers - except Lucretia, wife of Collatinus who pines, chastely, for her husband.
Junius (with one eye on fomenting revolution) eggs on the thuggish, entitled Etruscan Prince of Rome, Tarquinius, to test Lucretia's virtue and he rides through the night to do so - and to rape her. The next day, with Junius half-smirking in the background, Collatinus returns home to his distraught wife, too late to prevent her suicide, but angered enough to spark the overthrow of the regime.
For Grimeborn 2018, a festival that aims to introduce sceptics and newbies to opera, this work is what Sir Humphrey Appleby would term a "brave" choice. Sure it's by Benjamin Britten and it's presented, as intended, with a 12-piece orchestra in an intimate space in which the intensity is cranked up to 11 and stays there.
But 105 minutes all-through in midsummer heat? No surtitles to allow for a few minutes of eased concentration? And a title that, rightly, allows for no sugarcoating of the brutality at the heart of the matter? It's a tough watch - if a rewarding one.
If the criticism of their being no catchy tunes in the Sondheim canon can be conceded even by his fans, what of Britten? The music's melodies complement the action, but it's hardly easy on the ear - how could it be? One might counter by saying that Puccini managed to shoehorn some great tunes into some fairly bleak material, but tastes will vary.
What we do get - beyond any doubt - is an emotional sledgehammer to the heart, to the soul and, in the #MeToo climate, to the mind too. This is the reason we take the medicine, the spiky sandpaper to roughen up too genteel a middle-aged, middle-class complacency, an astringent tonic that only opera can provide. Director Julia Burbach delivers where it matters.
So do her excellent cast, led by a tremendous performance by Bethan Langford as Lucretia. At first, she's all bee-stung lips, Lizzie Siddall tumbling locks and white garb as pure as her body and soul. Soon we see that there's steel behind the pouting, but not enough to deal with the power imbalance between her and her feisty servants on one side and a Prince's lust/power mania on the other. Though no victim in attitude, in mentality, in culpability, she stands little chance against those odds and takes the only way out she can see.
She gets strong support from a hulking Benjamin Lewis as Tarquinius and from Natasha Jouhi and Rob Murray as the female and male choruses, who comment on the action, reveal character's thoughts and move about like black cat familiars, simultaneously in and out of the action. Orpheus Sinfonia also do a magnificent job, in terribly cramped conditions, under the direction of Peter Selwyn.
I remain sceptical that this production will gain new fans for opera, but it will delight those prepared to make the considerable investment of mental energy required at the end of a long hot day - and maybe it was never supposed to be easy.
Photo Robert Workman