Published in Scotland on Sunday
IT’S early afternoon in Edinburgh’s Hotel Missoni and it’s all Camille O’Sullivan can do not to curl up into a ball and have a nap on the temptingly comfy bench seating. She is in the middle of the kind of crazy itinerary that only a charismatic torch singer could tolerate: two gigs in Norwich and a hometown date in West Cork with a Belgian music festival sandwiched in between.
With Camille, the boundary between visionary and eccentric is a thin one. Right now, though, this noted carouser is in need of sustenance. It crosses her mind to start her Edinburgh day with a drink, but she thinks better of it and goes for the soup. If she’s tired, however, you wouldn’t know it from her conversation. Camille can talk. Her words tumble out in half-sentences, diverging trains of thought and entertaining digressions. At one point, she stumbles over the word “superfluous”, stressing it like “Superman”, a legacy, she says, of growing up in Cork with a French mother.
“When we were little, we were always pronouncing words like ‘embaRRASing’ and ‘des’ instead of ‘does,’ she laughs. O’Sullivan, though, could be talking gobbledygook and she’d still be dizzyingly good company.
At first glance her career seems to have taken an equally wayward path. Having studied fine art for a year and exhibited at Dublin’s Royal Hibernian Academy, she switched to architecture, picking up a first-class honours degree from University College Dublin and the Architectural Association of Ireland Award.
While working in an architect’s office for a year in Germany, she fell in love with the Berlin cabaret scene. She was also developing an after-hours singing habit and, having recovered from a near-fatal road accident in 1999, she vowed to put her hobby centre stage. It wasn’t long before the woman who had earned money on the wedding circuit singing crowd-pleasing ABBA songs was reinventing herself as a chanteuse with a taste for the great 20th-century lyricists from Kurt Weill to Bob Dylan.
But once you’ve thrown in her roles as an actor in the Stephen Frears’ movie Mrs Henderson Presents and a Gate Theatre production of Sweeney Todd, it’s hard to spot any unifying pattern to her career.
That seems even more the case now that she’s back in Edinburgh wearing yet another hat. No surprise to see her do a run at the Assembly Rooms with Changeling, a reassuringly offbeat set drawing on the recent album of the same name with its covers of David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails and Snow Patrol.
Much less expected is her debut in the Edinburgh International Festival in a one-woman performance of Shakespeare’s epic poem The Rape Of Lucrece. Staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company, no less, it’s a half-spoken, half-sung performance that, whatever its dark cabaret leanings, can only show Camille in a new light.
Architecture to the RSC by way of Jacques Brel may seem like an unlikely journey, but there is a hidden logic to it. O’Sullivan is a performer of tremendous discipline with an eye for detail you may even call architectural. “I would say there’s a wildness in 40 per cent of the show and then there’s an absolute minimalist structure, and that’s the way I would have approached architecture,” she says. “To me the lyric is king. Nothing should take from the lyric. If you move a hand, there’s a reason in the lyric. I’m quite a pain with my band because I’ll strip everything back until the lyric stands out. It’s about making it as simple as possible and being as truthful as possible – it’s the antithesis of all the madness in the show.
“With architecture, a lot of people would have thought I was some mad designer, but I wasn’t. I was obsessive about detail. On stage, I like to scrape away until it’s the strongest move, and in architecture, it was, ‘What’s the first entry into a space, what’s the first feeling and what follows on from there?’ I like buildings that don’t shout at you. When I do shout at people on stage, the architect in me is going, ‘Please could you bring it back to a more monastic thing.’ ”
The contradictory impulses are what make her such a compelling performer. It’s as if one side of her personality is allowing the other the temporary right to take over. “They’re in discussion with each other,” she agrees. “If you’re showing a bit of anger, vulnerability, madness or coquettishness in a song, you’re showing all aspects of yourself. When I hit the stage, it’s like a child with a lot of energy that wants to emote. Sometimes after the show, there’s a certain amount of embarrassment because you know in your private life you’re not like that – but on stage you’re this creature.”
Underscoring all of this is a restless questioning; not so much insecurity as an insatiable appetite to stay on her toes. “Even on stage, I’m always thinking of set lists or ‘Why did I choose that?’ or ‘Why am I so mental in this song?’ ” she says. “There are 20 different personalities in there and there is a certain amount of confidence and doubt that ride at the same time.”
Written in 1594, The Rape Of Lucrece tells the story of a woman who is raped by the king of the Tarquins. O’Sullivan’s challenge was to find those passages in Shakespeare’s poem that best suited the torch-song treatment for which she is famed. Working with pianist and Edinburgh University graduate Feargal Murray, she has set to music Shakespeare’s most intense verse in a show that blends spoken-word performance with a dark cabaret style.
“Elizabeth Freestone, the director, came to the Queen’s Hall and saw me do those narrative songs and she was the one who said, ‘I think that girl could take some of that poetry and sing it.’ The music fitted the structure of the poem and it felt like there was a conversation that was really alive. It felt similar to when you sing a beautiful Dylan lyric – the lyrics do it all for you as a singer. And I’ve fallen in love with Shakespeare all over again.”
Camille O’Sullivan: Changeling, Assembly Rooms, Saturday until 7 August; The Rape of Lucrece, Royal Lyceum Theatre, 22–26 August. www.camilleosullivan.co.uk