“This is too long”, exclaims Polonius in the midst of the First Player’s speech, much to Hamlet’s disdain. Listening to The Rape of Lucrece, I remind myself whose side I’m on in that interchange. Though written in rhyming stanzas, Shakespeare’s long narrative poem is as heavy in its rhetoric, as formidable to the ear, as the blank verse of Aeneas Tale to Dido. And unlike the relatively brief speech in Hamlet, The Rape of Lucrece clocks in at nearly two hours.

The performers are the redemptive element in this process. Reading this kind of work aloud requires discipline and sensitivity (and stamina?). Tony Church keeps an even tempo, while following the mood of the story with remarkable precision. Yet it’s Peggy Ashcroft as Lucrece who is the star of the recording, giving a searing example of classical acting, cycling through panic, shock and rage as the victim of Tarquin’s assault. Her sustained, perfectly pitched virtuosity makes the experience worthwhile. It’s a buried treasure in the series – the great performance you are least likely to discover.

This is one of those recordings where you have to make the tradeoff clear. It’s long, requires attention and patience, and frankly, it’s not Shakespeare’s greatest poem. But listening to Ashcroft and Church is like watching a couple of great athletes execute a routine with perfect form.

The Rape of Lucrece read by Tony Church, Peggy Ashcroft, Peter Holmes, George Rylands, Dennis McCarthy, Peter Orr.

 

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