Ancient Mariner Rime watered-down, though stunning to look at

The New Zealand International Festival of the Arts presents:

The Tiger Lillies
Martyn Jacques: Vocals, accordion, piano, guitar
Adrian Stout: Contra bass, musical saw, theremin, vocals
Mike Pickering: Percussion
Mark Holthusen: Animation and photography

St.James Theatre, Wellington
Saturday 8th/Sunday 9th March 2014

Review by Frances Robinson and Peter Mechen

This was an evening which, on the face of things, promised much, with a presentation that, right from the outset, looked terrific, but then didn’t go on to adequately develop the musical and contextual possibilities afforded by these arresting visual images. I’d not seen but had heard about the group’s previous appearance at the New Zealand Festival in 2000 with the anarchic musical Shockheaded Peter, and so was looking forward to what I hoped would be some comparably stunning realisations of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s visionary saga of a soul in torment.

Alas, past Mark Holthusen’s brilliant visual realisations, projected onto gauze screens arranged to give maximum spatial perspective, I thought the show was disappointingly bland as regards both music and literary response. Perhaps the advertising blurb unwittingly put its finger on the essence of the presentation, with its emphasis upon Holthusen’s “extraordinary animations” and its cliched description of the show as “the perfect fuel for those late-night club conversations” – I must have missed that part of it, for some reason.

Joking aside, there were sequences indeed well worthy of discussion, and indeed, argument, in the wake of it all – but they were invariably centred on the visual settings and those extraordinary projections of ships, sailors, oceanic swells, exotic places, and, of course, the ever-present albatross, the fulcrum around which the story of Coleridge’s poem revolves, both up to and subsequent to the bird’s untimely end, shot dead by the “Ancient Mariner”. In fact the  show might as well have been a silent-movie realisation of some of the poem’s events, the three-man ensemble’s textual and musical realisations a grossly watered-down version of the poet’s richly-conceived detailings.

So, throughout the evening the narrative action of the Ancient Mariner was broadly depicted by these amazing film projections that unfolded within the stage space. These spanned from the backdrop, right out to the front edge of the stage, with multiple layers often operating simultaneously, hanging in the void like a series of ethereal, translucent curtains. They were never for a moment static, as within them moved the characters of the tale like the Mariner himself, the albatross, the mermaid, the hapless cabin boy (I thought some of the suggested sexual abuse of the boy a bit gratuitous) and the ship’s crew. Across these ethereal vistas moved the jagged icebergs and drifting snowflakes of Antarctica, the listless clouds of the doldrums, the heaving stormy seas of the roaring forties, and the doomed vessel itself. Most dramatic of all were the wondrously fearful sea monsters, spiky, scaly, sinuous of tail, and hideous in tooth and claw.

The role of the three piece band was built around the vocals of Martyn Jacques, which sometimes narrated brief portions of the story narrative, sometimes commentary on the events.  They fell into two broad styles – heavy bass gig-style numbers thumped out from front of stage, with Jacques doing accordion and lyrics; or more soulful crooning cabaret-style numbers with Jacques doing piano and lyrics. In only a few instances was the diction clear, and only a few brief snatches of the Rime were clearly enunciated. The Coleridge poem provided no more than the skeletal framework for the vocals, while the sequence of the narrative was played out almost entirely by the projected stage effects.

I found this inbalance rather disappointing. I would have liked to hear much more of the wonderful tale, simply provided by Coleridge’s matchless word painting. Instead there were the booming lyrics from front of stage, with words barely distinguishable, or the keyboard numbers in a classic nightclub croon, complete with mangled American vowels which sat, to my ear, very oddly with the musings of a classic British tar.

In places I was reminded of another production I’d seen recently on DVD, that of Thomas Ades’s opera “The Tempest”, with Shakespeare’s texts disappointingly “flattened out” and the poetry’s extraordinary inbuilt resonances of ambience and rhythm destroyed. Here, the effect of the words was similarly diminished – only the predictable phrases from Coleridge were touched upon, and were rarely developed, apart from, in some instances, being subjected to endless repetition.

This may have been a deliberate intention, used to highlight the endless wanderings of the vessel and the hopelessness of the Mariner, or simply the group’s normal style of gig music. Having said that, some numbers married brilliantly with the visual effects, and particularly the finale. This comprised little more than the repeated phrase “Living Hell” thumped out numerous times, but the stage and band were progressively engulfed by leaping flames from every direction in a spectacular finish to the show. It brought the house down, which suggested that the audience came largely for a hugely entertaining production, which this most certainly was.

It was clearly not a “setting” of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner in the traditional sense, and this was probably never the intention of its creators. Given that, the Tiger Lillies and their inventive visual artist Mark Holthusen produced a highly creative spectacle where the visual effects were undoubtedly the standout feature.