Category Archives: Edinburgh 2012

Camille O’Sullivan Sings The Rape Of Lucrece, While George Galloway Rolls Out The Same Old Excuses: Why Rape Remains So Difficult To Bring To Justice, 400 Years On – Column 24.8.12

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 24.8.12
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SOMETIMES, art has an extraordinary way of anticipating life, and even of foreshadowing the news headlines. On Wednesday evening, at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, the wonderful singer and actress Camille O’Sullivan gave the Edinburgh premiere performance of her remarkable solo version of Shakespeare’s great narrative poem The Rape Of Lucrece, about the beautiful young wife of a Roman general savagely raped by the arrogant Prince, Tarquin.

O’Sullivan’s show is just one of a series of superb dramas about rape or sexual violence that have won acclaim in Edinburgh this August, ranging from the double-bill of plays about the consequences of torture in Chile seen in the official festival earlier this week, to the mind-blowing South African Mies Julie at Assembly, in which a wealthy farmer’s daughter recklessly seduces one of her father’s black servants, unleashing a torrent of violence on both sides.

And it has been a strange and sobering experience to watch these shows, this week, at a time when the subject of rape has barely been out of the news. Confronted with any fictional account of a distressing subject, we tend to look for reasons to keep the story at a distance; The Rape Of Lucrece is set in ancient Rome, we tell ourselves, and the military dictatorship in Chile ended two decades ago.

Yet however much we want to believe that we live in a place and time where these horrors have been laid to rest, the daily news conspires to remind us that this argument rages on. This week, in a terrifying and hallucinatory moment, a serious Republican candidate for the US House of Representatives publicly denied that rape could result in pregnancy, so eager is he to refuse women the right to determine whether they continue with such a pregnancy or not. And here in Britain, some public figures who should know better – including the increasingly notorious George Galloway – set out to explain away the charges of rape faced by Wikileaks boss Julian Assange as mere breaches of what Galloway called “sexual etiquette”.

So what is going on, in a world where rape is so loudly dismissed as unacceptable, yet still so widespread, and so diffiicult to bring to justice? In the first place, we live in an age of growing global instability; and wherever there is war, and the collapse of states, women and vulnerable men risk becoming victims of rape. The protection of the weak requires stable and reasonably strong governmment, with some kind of working justice system; and western governments may be about to learn a tough lesson or two, about the consequences of their enthusiasm for tearing down authoritarian regimes across the planet, and simply assuming that whatever replaces them will be better.

Secondly, there are levels of confusion about the extent to which respect for different culture involves tolerating the assumption, in many traditional moral codes, that a raped woman has suffered an irreversible disaster, and is doomed to suffer a worse punishment than her attacker, including complete social ostracism and possible death. There is nothing in the creed of any major faith, or in any culture worth the name, that makes it right to punish the victim of a crime rather than the perpetrator. The code of honour under which poor Lucrece feels her only remaining option is suicide, following her rape, amounts to oppressive patriarchal superstition; and it is one of the main tasks of civlisation and enlightenment – and of women campaigning together everywhere – to challenge those superstitions, and strike them down.

Thirdly, we have the phenomenon of rape-talk as part of the western backlash against feminisim; the feeling, among some men, that women have got above themselves in recent decades, and need to be slapped back into their place. This is a culture that informs some of the jokes about rape – often found hilarious by audiences – that women stand-up comics in Edinburgh this week asked their male colleagues to stop making. It informs the tidal wave of violent internet porn which, in a culture short of real erotic tenderness, increasingly encourages young men – and girls too – to make a pathological and dangerous link between sexual excitement and violence; and it helps shape the archaic sexual politics of the extreme social and “religious” right, as represented this week by the hapless Congressman Akin.

And somewhere behind it all, perhaps, we have the culture of destructive pessimism about human nature that has been marching across western thought since the early 1980’s, driven by a grim biological determinism about gender differences. Yet the whole story of our species – in so far as it contains anty drama or interest at all – is about our struggle to be something better than that. Of course we are the species who rape and lie about rape, who kill and compete, and who sometimes grab colossal wealth for ourselves, when we can.

We are also the species, though, that has constructed civil societies in which wrongs can be righted, equality advanced, and justice done; and in which millions of fortunate women – of whom I count myself one – can live out their lives in freedom, without fear of assault or abuse. In the subtitle of her wonderful Mies Julie, the South African writer Yael Farber talks of “resititution of body and soul”, following the multiple abuses of apartheid, often written on the bodies of suffering men and women.

To achieve that, though, we have to believe in our continuing capacity to build societies worth living in; and we have to reject the cynicism and lies of those who say that our efforts are futile. In The Rape Of Lucrece, Shakespeare dedicates more than half of the poem to Lucrece’s long argument with herself about how she should respond to the violence she has suffered; and he does this not because he is a theorist about women’s rights. He does it because he knows, in his truth-telling poet’s soul, that Lucrece is a complete person, subtle, inteligent, and as full of thought, integrity and questioning as any man; and that she deserves to be heard speaking her truth down the ages, in the kind of voice that can change lives, and perhaps begin to change worlds.

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Les Naufrages Du Fol Espoir (Aurores)

EIF THEATRE
Les Naufrages Du Fol Espoir (Aurores)
4 stars ****
Lowand Hall, Ingliston

THE MONTH IS JULY 1914; and in a huge attic in northern France, a man called Jean, in love with film, is making a movie – a popular adventure story about nationalism, capitalism and imperialism, and the struggle for something better. Outside, the clouds of war are gathering. But Jean and his two-dozen-strong company of would-be artists believe that the people of Europe will not allow themselves to be sacrificed, over empty nationalistic squabbles.

This is the situation conjured up in Ariane Mnouchkine’s astonishing four-hour show, with which – on her first-ever visit to Edinburgh – she and her legendary Theatre Du Soleil of Paris transform the Lowland Hall into a true factory of dreams. There is a lush score of European classical music; and it accompanies scenes from the fictional movie that are presented with a terrific sense of comic choreography and slapstick, as the performers not being filmed throw themselves around the stage, following the camera, and creating weather for actors whose story leads them to a shipwreck in the Antarctic ocean.

Eventually, the relentless playfulness of these scenes is a little long-drawn-out. But by plunging us into the heart of a genuine creative process, at one of the mighty turning-points of European history, Mnouchkine and her company leave us with a powerful sense of history as something not fixed, but made from moment to moment, by people much like us; and of how it could have been different, if nationalism had not triumphed over socialism, in that summer of 1914, and plunged our world into half a century of war.

Joyce McMillan
Until 28 August
EIF p.9

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The Rape Of Lucrece

EIF THEATRE
The Rape Of Lucrece
4 stars ****
Royal Lyceum Theatre

THESE DAYS, in the west, we often comfort ourselves with the thought that the battle for sexual equality has been won; yet this has been a week full of reminders that for many, women’s bodies remain a territory to be controlled and argued over by men. Written in an age before feminism, Shakespeare’s mighty narrative poem The Rape Of Lucrece reaches straight to the heart of that tension, as it surrounds the breathtakingly beautiful and virtuous young wife of a Roman general named Collatine; and it’s a tension made flesh in Camille O’Sullivan’s intense and beautiful musical performance of the poem, accompanied only by pianist Feargal Murray who co-wrote the songs, and produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of this year’s World Shakespeare Festival.

On a magnificently-lit stage surrounded by great, blank portrait frames, Camille first takes on the character of the arrogant prince Tarquin, in his military greatcoat, rolling out his arguments and excuses for the appalling act of violence he intends. Then, at the moment of the rape, she becomes Lucrece herself, in a simple white shift, a woman robbed of something she values more than life itself; and a subtle and thoughtful moral actor in her own right.

It’s a terrible patriarchal logic, of course, that forces the victim of rape into self-destruction; and in an Edinburgh Festival full of the fierce and thrilling sounds of European polyphonic music and hard-edged Brechtian cabaret, I sometimes wondered whether O’Sullivan’s music – which favours a Tom-Waits-like deep-throated meditation, ranging upward to whispering melodic poignancy – really captures the full range of the story’s harsh logic, elemental horror, and fierce beauty. This is, though, a most elegant and powerful show, with a fine and passionate performance at its heart; and it reaffirms Camille O’Sullivan’s gift as an an actress-singer of tremendous range and intelligence, with a stage presence that can light up cities, and open hearts.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August
EIF p. 15

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The Ugly Sisters

THEATRE
The Ugly Sisters
4 stars ****
Northern Stage at St. Stephen’s (Venue 73)

THEY TAKE NO prisoners, Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen of RashDash Theatre; their shows are loud, brash, often brilliantly-coloured, and fuelled by what they call a “strong, young female identity” – which means that they are often very angry indeed. Their latest show is a hallucinatory rock-opera take on the Cinderella story, in which Greenland and Goalen play the two ugly sisters, wrenched from their peaceful lives as the beloved daughters of a hard-working single Mum when she marries into wealth and celebrity, and introduces them to their new stepsister. We don’t get to meet Cinderella, but she seems to be a simpering type, who has no trouble winning the hand of the Prince, along with global fame and adoration.

Meanwhile, the Uglies are treading the uncomfortable byways of B-list celebrity, hanging around in some duff Find-Me-A-Princess reality show, and learning the hard way that maintaining the look even of a joke celebrity entails huge amounts of effort and maintenance. Whether all of this was inspired by the remarkable appearance of Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie in bizarre hats, at the wedding of Prince William and his super-sweet Kate, is hard to say. What I do know, though, is that this show is presented with fierce energy and pzazz, that it contains three or four terrific songs – co-created with gifted Brighton backing band Not Now Bernard – and that the amazing Ms Greenland sings better, every time she appears on stage. Which is surely enough to be going on with.

Joyce McMillan
Until 25 August
p. 332

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NOLA

THEATRE
NOLA
3 stars ***
Underbelly (Venue 61)

THERE CAN hardly have been a show in this year’s massive Fringe brochure that promised more than Look Left Look Right’s NOLA. Staged by a young company from East Anglia that won acclaim on last year’s Fringe, the show confronts the huge and vital subject of the giant BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago, and its colossal impact on the people who live along the south-eastern coastline of the United States.

Researched and edited by the company’s artistic director Mimi Poskitt, the show compiles a great deal of factual evidence, makes extensive use of video material, and follows the stories of what could be some interesting characters, including the lawyer father of one of the workers who was killed in the initial explosion, and others struggling to maintain some kind of livelihood along the coastline, in a situation where the award of compensation seems arbitrary at best.

Despite the best efforts of what should be a strong cast, though, NOLA never even begins to show any real theatrical life. The narrative is weak, the character sketches never take hold, the points made are obvious, and far from fresh. And the show ends up looking like some kind of requiem for the recent wave of verbatim theatre in Britain. The research is there, and so is the subject-matter; but dramatically, NOLA is dead on its feet.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August
p. 304

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Amusements

THEATRE
Amusements
3 stars ***
Summerhall (Venue 26)

WE ENTER a modern basement lecture theatre at Summerhall, where large, soft headphones lie on the desk in front of each seat. We follow the instructions on a card, put them on, and the technology works like a dream; in moments, we are immersed in the sound-world created by the acclaimed young English-Spanish performance group Sleepwalk Collective. We breathe, we travel, we find ourselves on a beach, while performer iara Solano Arana speaks breathily or with sudden harshness into a microphone, leading us on. Sometimes there is darkness, and sometimes we are allowed to watch her, standing in front of us in a red dress; then beginning to slip off her underwear, as if she was about to plunge into the sea.

So it’s a high score for technical merit, in Sleepwalk Collective’s latest 45-minute piece Amusements; but alas, the artistic impression soon wanders down a cul de sac, as the text dwindles into a circular theoretical meditation on the nature of the audience, as a living, breathing, sentient voyeur. And by the end, Solano Arana is making sweeping statements about how bored we all are by our lives outside the theatre, and how sexy we all are when we are in it, that seem at best presumptuous; and at worst, given how boring some of this show is, downright inaccurate.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August
p. 255

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Miss Havisham’s Expectations

THEATRE
Miss Havisham’s Expectations
3 stars ***
Gilded Balloon Teviot (Venue 14)

IN THE YEAR of Charles Dickens’s bicentenary, there has been no shortage of work celebrating his extraordinary place in Engish literature; but I doubt if any of them has approached him with a more feisty and sceptical gaze than Di Sherlock’s 70-minute monologue Miss Havisham’s Expectations, performed with terrific panache by the legendary Fringe actress Linda Marlowe.

On a stage furnished only with a caricature of a wedding table, a ruined chair, and a large oval mirror that sometimes becomes a screen, this Miss Havisham not only rages against the man who jilted her, and plots revenge on the entire male sex as represented by Dickens’s hero, Pip; she also – in deliberately anachronistic language – pours a great deal of scorn on her own male creator, who notoriously had his wife declared insane and exiled to the countryside, so that he could pursue his relationship with a teenage mistress.

In the end, the play seems more like a fierce and witty footnote to Dickens’s novel than an original piece in its own right; but Marlowe’s performance is infinitely worth seeing, wild, disturbing, and oddly sexy, in its evocation of the wreckage of a woman who is angry beyond time, still in some lights beautiful, and not quite dead yet.

Joyce McMillan
Until 27 August
p. 299

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