Cabaret sensation Camille O’Sullivan first performed her emotionally powerful reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s tragic poem The Rape of Lucrece while six months pregnant.

“It was most extraordinary being on stage with her. I was at my best, but then you are doing such a sad story,” says Camille, who was performing at Sydney Opera House at the time.

Inspired by Livy and Ovid, Shakespeare’s poem tells of Lucrece, the wife of a Roman officer, Collatine, who in boasting of his beautiful wife’s chastity to his fellow officers – including jealous Tarquin, the son of the king – seals her fate. Tarquin creeps into Lucrece’s bedroom and rapes her. Camille plays both rapist and victim, narrating the fate of each.

Pianist Feargal Murray and Camille bring this 1,855-line epic to life through storytelling and song.

After a four-night run at Stratford in 2011, The Rape of Lucrece was a huge sell-out hit at the 2012 Edinburgh International Festival and won Camille the prestigious Bank of Scotland Herald Angel Award – something she says was “the icing on the cake”.

The production continued its critical success in Australia, as part of the Sydney Festival 2013, and visited Melbourne, Dublin, Derry/Londonderry and The Hague.

“It’s the story of a wronged woman. Rape is a terrible thing but the tale is told quite beautifully. It is the journey of what happened to Lucrece’s mind afterwards and the dignity of a woman. It is very political.”

Camille says she was deeply shocked by the gang rape of a 23-year-old university student in Delhi after she was lured on to a bus.

She says: “Singing one of the songs, in which Lucrece contemplates suicide, I feel very hurt.

“I used to hold back a little on stage, but when I was in Sydney last year the father of the girl who was raped on a bus said he hoped the men who did it would be killed. I thought ‘of course you would say that if someone did that to your daughter’ and that feeds into the performance.

“What comes out of the story are two dignified men – Lucrece’s father and her husband – and how do you try and save your daughter or sister.

“A lot of people are nervous to see the production because of the title. But it’s not violent.

Pianist Feargal Murray
Pianist Feargal Murray
 

“It’s quite an horrific event to tell, but Shakespeare writes in such a beautiful way.”

This week Camille and Feargal, who co-wrote the original music and songs, are returning to the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon where it all began in 2011. After seeing Camille perform, theatre director Elizabeth Freestone was convinced her singing and narrative style would work with the poem. The three of them adapted it together for the stage.

Camille, the daughter of an Irish racing driver and French artist mother, says: “Feargal and I were very delighted to be chosen to do the piece. The RSC said ‘we want to try something different’. Elizabeth could see something in Feargal and I. We didn’t know if it would work.

“It feels lovely it’s coming full circle. When I was last in Stratford I was still learning it. I was having a breakdown. I was like ‘Oh my God – the RSC’. “I’m quite Irish about it, in that I have a fear of things going wrong, and doubt creeps in. But you put all that energy into your performance.

“When they said to try some acting I was like, ‘I am a trained architect, what are you doing to me?’ I have no formal training.

“When I first started I couldn’t even pronounce iambic pentameter. The rest of the RSC company were so lovely. King Lear and Romeo and Juliet were on at the time. Afterwards the actors would give me tips in the bar.

“It will be nice to return knowing the poem.

“I feel much happier singing than when I am acting, it really allows you to find the emotion in it. The RSC were brilliant in getting it out of us.”

An award-winning architect and portrait painter, Camille swapped careers after she was knocked down by a car, aged 26, in 1999. She has built an international reputation singing sultry cabaret-style versions of songs by Jacques Brel, Kurt Weill, Tom Waits, Nick Cave and David Bowie.

“I have terrible stage nerves. I wanted to be a performer and a painter but didn’t have the balls for it,” she explains.

“‘Architecture – that’s a good job’ my parents said.

“After doing the course I was scared to leave it. Then I had this car accident which was quite severe. I had to learn to walk again and thought to myself: ‘if you want to sing get on with it’. Before I was a scaredy cat.”

Three weeks after giving birth last summer she was chosen by Yoko Ono to perform Double Fantasy Live at Meltdown in London, on a bill with Patti Smith, John Lennon’s guitarist Earl Slick, Siouxsie Sioux and Sean Ono Lennon.

She sang both John Lennon’s I’m Losing You and Yoko’s Yes I’m Your Angel.

“It was amazing. I’m Losing You is a song you had to be a bit crazy to sing. I was just in the right state. I was quite mad from giving birth. You need madness to do an event like that,” she says.

“Yoko was great. Sean (Ono Lennon) said to her ‘this is the girl whose song you like’. They were so sweet. Yoko was phenomenal on stage. She was 80 years old and the audience were going wild.”

After Stratford Camille and Feargal are on the road again. The Rape of Lucrece will tour Germany, the Edinburgh Festival, Dublin, Australia and New York.

“Feargal and I have worked together for 15 years. He’s quite marvellous. It really is a duel effort and a friendship too. We hope it will just keep going. We are gypsies – we go where the sun is. Now Shakespeare is unlocked, perhaps we can look at Beckett and Joyce.”

* The Rape of Lucrece runs at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, as part of the Midsummer Mischief Festival, until July 4. Ring 0844 800 1110 or go to www.rsc.org.uk