Theatre Royal, Hobart
June 17, 2018

Trigger: This review contains discussion of rape and violence against women.

There has never been a more important time for The Rape of Lucretia.

I feel queasy taking my seat in the Theatre Royal to watch this 1946 Benjamin Britten opera, here presented as part of Tasmania’s hellish Dark Mofo. It’s a collaboration between the Victorian Opera and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra; but was first performed by the Sydney Chamber Opera under its Artistic Director Jack Symonds with VO for Carriageworks last year. Of his staging, Symonds has previously said: “There was little to be gained by asking the audience to watch something graphic around this subject matter… you suddenly realise that the way you normally see everything is deeply gendered”.

Rape of LucretiaThe Rape of Lucretia by Victorian Opera and Sydney Chamber Opera at Carriageworks. Photograph © Zan Wimberley

This was always going to be a show worthy of deeper conversation. It simply cannot be ignored that this winter’s production is performed in the wake of a tragic and resonant death – the horrific rape and murder of young Australian woman Eurydice Dixon. This loss of life has ignited a national conversation about rape – in particular, the outrage of police responses telling women to prevent their own rape by taking precautionary methods when alone in the night. So today, The Rape of Lucretia casts a chillingly relevant eye over the way that a woman is not ever responsible for her own rape. A woman can be asleep in her own bed when her freedom is taken away. This production serves as a message that tells us a woman’s own “situational awareness” does not determine her safety from an attacker.

This opera is deeply unsettling. I had not heard the music before; and its synopsis is bleak. Set in Roman times, the foreign Prince of Rome Tarquinius Superbus (Nathan Lay/Jessica O’Donoghue) and Junius (Simon Lobelson/Jane Sheldon) gang up to test the chastity of Lucretia (Anna Dowsley/Jeremy Kleeman). Lucretia is the humble wife of Collatinus (Jeremy Kleeman/Anna Dowsley). Tarquinius violently pursues her to challenge her loyalty and exploit his power. She is raped, and out of her shame she eventually commits suicide.

Or should I say ‘he’ is raped.

This production – led by conductor Jack Symonds and director Kip Williams with set design by David Fletcher, costumes by Elizabeth Gadsby, and lighting by Damien Cooper –  swaps the gender of its cast (for the majority of the opera). Just eight singers take to the stage – a minimalist backdrop that is a white, four-level mock-up of a Roman senate or amphitheatre. Beyond this lays exposed the ‘backstage’ of the Theatre Royal; bricks and metal structures. The TSO players are in the pit. The cast is dressed in grey, gender-neutral clothing – trackpants and hoodies. The women on stage mime the male singers and act their respective male characters. These male/female pairings exist throughout the show and are later reversed.

To begin, this gender-swap doesn’t sit comfortably with me. It doesn’t feel right to watch female faces representing male characters who joke about women being worthless “whores”. Because of the absence of elaborate costume design or staging, our attention is entirely diverted to this narrative. And as the music itself performed with little flaw, we can concentrate solely on our interpretation of the plot as it unravels.

And it is not a pleasant plot at all. Its path is set in stone when the lust-fuelled and power-hungry Tarquinius travels on horse to claim Lucretia’s body. (The horse, in fact, is a chair – straddled with grotesque suggestiveness by the “Male Chorus” character Nicholas Jones; one of the show’s stand-out singers).

The Rape of Lucretia by Victorian Opera and Sydney Chamber Opera at Carriageworks. Photograph © Zan Wimberley

Knowing that the rape is inevitable doesn’t stop me from hoping it won’t take place. Indeed, some singers warn “Wake up, Lucretia”, as the male-portrayed Lucretia lies on the stage floor in innocent slumber. In a scene that is incredibly slow-paced and builds our sense of dread, we witness female-portrayed Tarquinius lurk like an animal toward her/his victim.

As Lucretia is here performed by Kleeman, the intention is presumably to strip the singer of a perceived ‘masculinity’ by placing him in a pale dress and appearing physically helpless against attack by a woman (reversing the gendered power dynamic with which the media often presents us; but indirectly affirming it). Superbly executed direction sees Lucretia scrambling on the floor, on his/her back; legs thrown wide, audience peering at the attacker looming above him/her, as though through Lucretia’s own eyes. It is sickening positioning.

After the attack, the gender roles are returned: Kleeman plays Lucretia’s forgiving husband; Lucretia reverts to her female self through the engrossingly pure timbre of Anna Dowsley. The dress a symbol of shame in her arms, Lucretia kills herself in a bloody mess on the stage.

A traditionally Christian ending is here posed as a question; the “Female Chorus” character Celeste Lazarenko removes a crucifix from around her neck, and turns to face the dead Lucretia as if to ask: “Could any god really allow this?”.

The swapping of genders in this performance presents a few interpretations: it enables the portrayal of Lucretia’s rape as a detached, out-of-body experience; echoing harrowing real-world accounts of survivors of rape. It also removes our understanding of power dynamics: by stripping away the concept of male perpetrator and female victim, we can learn to understand the crime of rape as an act stemming from the need for power – rather than a weakness of the female gender. That is, when you strip away the identification of ‘man’ or ‘woman’, you’re simply left with ‘people’ who choose to be good, and others who choose to take away the freedom and life of an individual.

In this way, Dark Mofo’s The Rape of Lucretia may unite male and female audiences in explaining rape as a human story and a human experience. But statistically speaking, rape is predominantly a female experience. So what right does a male have to portray the female experience?

It’s a question I am not confident to answer, and I walk away questioning whether I ‘get’ this production or agree with it in a moral sense. Does it show women reclaiming their power; or is it exploitative to present women as their own attackers? Is it alright to victimise a male when sharing a female story of rape?

However, I am also left feeling that this is a sobering show among Dark Mofo’s explicit glorification of “sex and death” themes. This production is greatly successful in providing balance in this festival with “sex and death” as simply art, and “sex and death” as themes we must confront in reality.

Musically, the production is outstanding – the TSO ensemble responds immaculately to Britten’s bursting phrases of musical narrative, and its expression through the cast. Indeed, scarcely will you find a tighter unit – it presents singers who perform through voice, singers who perform through mime (without always watching the source of their sound), and musicians who support and guide it all. As a collaborative effort, it is expertly performed.

Leaving aside my inconclusive opinion on the decision to gender-swap, I applaud VO, TSO, and Dark Mofo for bringing to Hobart one of the most important and deeply moving operas I’ve witnessed – in a time when we really need to continue these conversations.