The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a seminal text in English Romantic literature which many Australians would have encountered in a high school classroom. It’s a poem detailing the penance an old mariner must pay for a moment of arrogance and cruelty against a “lesser” being. Little Eggs’s reimagining for the stage adds texture and movement, bringing new life to an old text.
Upon a sandy patch eight sailors and their captain (Nicholas Papademetriou) are awaiting a wind to fill their sails and lift their spirits. From over the horizon comes an albatross (Nicole Pingon), a sign of good luck, and with it, a wind to push the ship along. However, when the captain decides to shoot the bird, the ship’s luck turns and they are trapped in a lull: “Water, water every where, Nor any drop to drink.” For his cruelty, the entire crew suffers the fate of death while the captain is granted a harsher punishment of life-in-death, roaming the world telling his story as warning.
Reimagined as physical theatre, director Julia Robertson and her cast of performers/devisors chose key passages to recite within their recreation as touch-stones to the original text. This helps to structure the narrative but, in many ways, this production stands separate from its source. The interpretation of text into movement is inspired. The ensemble work in controlled harmony to create unexpected and unusual shapes, repetitions, and sensations. Moments of particular wonder included using torches to mimic the grouped movement of sea creatures or swaying and sighing to capture the joy of sunlight after a storm.
What is most striking in this production is the injection of texture and shape, interpreting words, tone, and rhythm from the Romantic poem into a visual and physical landscape but additionally amplifying micro sensations in what is a largely barren and stimulation-less context of life at sea. Simple and familiar surfaces like sand, sweaty skin, and swishing raincoats are heightened in the relief of textural isolation.
The design from Nick Fry, which juxtaposes natural materials like sand and wood against plastics and synthetic fabrics plays on the placement of human bodies and their constructed contexts within entirely natural environments. While Romantically humans and animals are creatures created equal, humans are at a distance with their constructed objects, tools, vehicles, and weapons.
In addition to visceral sensations, the use of sound (both designed and natural) and emotive lighting are innovatively atmospheric. The performers emphasis eerie, ghostly passages with clicking or grotesque sucking noises overlaying the ever-creaking boat or humming to build tension before breaking into angelic choruses that nearly crack the air with their release. At the same time, the lighting states seem in constant movement, demonstrating the range of possibilities in recreating natural light or imagining fantasy spaces when the design is in astute creative hands.
As an ensemble, the cast of performers strike different notes individually but are collectively consistent. Annie Stafford shines through as a quirky, nervous crew member as much as she does as a delicate mover and singer. Callan Purcell also adds a naive enthusiasm as a bit of a joker but with a pure spirit and truly special vocals. This is a group of strong performers in control of their presence and physicality directed into mesmerism.
Little Eggs are making completely different theatre in Sydney, constantly reimagining the possibilities of the theatre to tell stories. Their practise of strong textual sources solidifies their experimentation without becoming reductive, repetitive, or constrained to the literal. Eschewing the limitations of textual narrativity, the other aspects of design and performance are allowed to reach enormous range and ground the production in emotion and sensation. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is both hallowed and brand new in their hands.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is running at Kings Cross Theatre’s Bordello Room from April 2nd – 13th as part of the Hi-JackedRabbit at KXT Season