tue 28/05/2024

Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Queen Elizabeth Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Queen Elizabeth Hall

With spectacular visuals the Tiger Lillies take on the loneliness of Coleridge's eternal wanderer

As the ships go down, the Tiger Lillies play on...All images - Mark Holthusen

It’s hard to imagine much upstaging Martyn Jacques, the indomitable falsetto frontman of the Tiger Lillies. The gaping mouth of an enormous mythical fish that seems to have swum straight from the canvases of Hieronymus Bosch, projected right across the stage in their new show Rime of the the Ancient Mariner, comes close.

The show is a glorious visual cabinet of curiosities that enthrals on all its surreal fronts, a version of madness that matches the lonely voice of Coleridge’s mariner with the sadness of Jacques’ lyrics and music – and the lyrical dominates here over the raw fury that the performer has made so distinctively his own in earlier incarnations.

Its striking appearance comes courtesy of Californian artist Mark Holthusen (stage sets pictured below), who uses all sorts of animation in revelatory ways to define the loose proscenium arch space behind the gauze of which the trio play: Jacques moves from accordion at the microphone to piano, supported by Adrian Stout on the contra bass, musical saw and theremin – the unearthly sounds of which usher us into this hallucinogenic experience – and Mike Pickering, the relative newcomer to the band.

Visual associations come from all over the place. Given the marine subject matter, it could be a monumental fish tank, or a Punch and Judy box on a Victorian pier, caught through the prism of Terry Gilliam. Though Holthausen has mentioned associations with baroque, there’s a strongly Victorian feel, with the mannered stagings of music hall, from the stylised waves that lap stage front to the albatross itself. Audiences will marvel at how it’s all achieved: there’s at least one layer of front stage projection, and multiple rear projections which create a deeper sense of backdrop, and a collage effect. There’s both stop-motion and live action animation, and effects that could be drawn from older traditions, like Indonesia's wayang, in the elaborately flounced mermaids who periodically swim before us.

Keeping up with a narrative isn’t really the issue here, as Rime of the Ancient Mariner takes us into the crazed mind of its mariner in its 20 numbers, interspersed by five brief spoken interludes from Coleridge. There’s the bawdy of the early “Cabin Boys” with its lashes and lust, and the putrid disgust of “Rotten Flesh” and “Living Hell”, but strongest of all is a sense of drifting, whether entrapped by the spectacular ice cliffs of Antartica, or becalmed in “Water Everywhere”. Jacques’ tone is much less the staccato that we’re used to from other works in the Tiger Lillies repertoire – a tone that dates right back to their first stage show Shockheaded Peter, with its sense of revelling in grotesque – and new tones have crept in: certainly elements of jazz, and a more luscious big emotion piano, the latter a somewhat unfamiliar destination for the singer.

Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a work that largely defies description, and all the stronger for that. Their encounter with Holthusen has moved the Tiger Lillies in another direction, and they'll shortly be partnering with him again in a take on Alban Berg's Lulu with Opera North. It’s also spawned a separate parade of images that present them as if in character from the show (main picture), giving the sense that Rime exists beyond the immediate dimensions of its stage version, as in Holthusen's Victorian postcard-style image of Jacques (pictured left) and others.

Once again the Tiger Lillies have proved that they really are a law unto themselves. A very contemporary work that pushes stagecraft well beyond theatre's usual boundaries, Rime nevertheless remains wonderfully anchored in period. Unforgettable. 

  • Rime of the Ancient Mariner is at the QEH until Sunday

Overleaf: watch the 'Living Hell' episode from Rime of the Ancient Mariner



Rime is a glorious visual cabinet of curiosities that enthrals on all fronts


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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