Actor and director Fiona Shaw is currently presenting her version of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne. This is Glyndebourne’s first production of Britten’s masterpiece since its world premiere at the opera house in 1946. Britten created this opera with the poet Ronald Duncan and their close collaboration produced a tightly focused treatment of a legend which has acquired numerous layers in painting, poetry and drama. On 28 November there will be a special performance aimed at the under-30s where all seats are just £20. We speak to director, Shaw, about her approach to this piece.
A: The Rape of Lucretia is rarely performed and is sometime described as difficult to stage. What’s the attraction for you?
FS: The attraction is the “difficulty”. Much is hidden in Lucretia – sketched, unrealised – and I hope we can go in and find the detail that will grab the audience and allow them to know the characters better and feel the disquiet of its story. It’s a hard opera as it has a cold, modernist frame but we hope to challenge that and find in it a new modernity, one that communicates directly. It also demands that the audience make up their own mind which is a good thing. I am attracted to the daring of an opera that deals with rape, not the crude rape of thuggery but the complex rape of the secrets of the mind and the rape of family happiness.
A: Can you give us an insight into the production and your interpretation of it?
FS: As we have worked on the design of the opera we have become interested in the archaeology of the mind. Deep down are these barbaric passions that need to be dealt with and so we have reflected this digging in the moral mind on stage. The opera distances itself by insisting history is where these actions take place but we have to know they take place whenever we retell the story. I think the tellers and the tale are connected. No one is free from the questions. It’s dark and the people vivid.
A: How has your experience of being an actor and a director impacted upon each other?
FS: Being an actor gives me the confidence to dare to walk into this highly demanding form. I love performers and performance. I am fascinated by the fusion of player and the role, the decisions that get made and the inhabiting of another soul for an evening, and I relish that in others. Learning the long haul of preparation that opera demands has been a treat and the year goes by in a permanent mediation of the possibilities.
I suppose I have always thought about the whole when acting a part so I have directed my own roles in that sense. I have learned it’s a great relief not being responsible for every decision when acting. Being a director has maybe helped me become more relaxed in my performances.
I love being in the rehearsal room with the singers; all of them talented actors too. I also relish the chance for total submersion in the piece as I’m staying at Glyndebourne for the duration. I often find myself standing at the bottom of these glorious hills, looking up and finding a path that will help us all rise.
A: The Rape of Lucretia is set in Ancient Rome. How can it speak to today’s audiences?
FS: Lucretia is set in a past, which hopes to protect the two central characters – the Female and Male Chorus – who tell the story from the story’s content. Why they are telling it remains a question but all theatre happens in the now, in the instant of performance, so there is no escape. Time and distance merely allow us to see what might overpower us if we thought these events were going on in our lives, in our houses now. We know human nature does not change, and the excitement is in realising that.
The question for Lucretia as to what to do with a feeling that can only exist if undisturbed and cannot be seen in daylight is as true for all of us looking at it. She has to decide her future, having been forced to accept the premise of her life is a lie. She has to decide if she can bury her true feeling again. We all have versions of this in our lives and invent elaborate means to contain our incompatible selves.
A:There are many Britten productions being staged in 2013 to celebrate his centenary year, how do you think The Rape of Lucretia will fit in to the mix?
FS: Lucretia is not like other Britten operas, on the surface anyway. With Britten it’s normally the men who hold the guilt and complexity, here it is a woman. But there are similar themes: the intolerable pain of being made an outsider because of passion; the power of society on the individual. I hope this production furthers these themes and goes on shocking us.
A: The central role of Lucretia is one which requires the talents of a ‘singing’ actress. How are you drawing on your own experiences to support Claudia Huckle in her role debut as Lucretia?
FS: I certainly won’t be telling Claudia what to do. I shall try to encourage her to bring from herself the qualities that allow her vulnerability to communicate the searing pain of her situation. Being an actress makes me know that it is this individual space that makes for sculpted performance. Allow the performer the safety to be dangerous; I hope I can do that with her.
A: Why would you say opera is it worth a try?
FS: If you allow yourself to try an opera, if you just go and listen and watch, your attention will be held on that stage in a way no other art form will hold it. Opera gives the viewer a chance to have their mind blown with visual beauty and huge questions of our infinitely chaotic selves, seen and elaborated. Opera offers a place to feel passion and demands you meet it. You should come out exhausted and exhilarated – or happy or sad – but somewhere delighted and moved at being human.
The Rape of Lucretia, until 6 December, Under-30’s Night is on 28 November and tickets are £20, Glyndebourne, Lewes, East Sussex, BN8 5UU.
1. The Rape of Lucretia, courtesy of Richard Hubert Smith.