The Rime of the Ancient Mariner may be studded with overfamiliar quotations, but taken in its entirety, has the power to disturb. It is about guilt, terror, hallucination, terror, “the nightmare death-in-life” and prescient sense of human vandalism of the natural world. It yearns for forgiveness and the power to pray. It came, after all, from a man brilliant, revolutionary in his politics and sexual morality, possibly bipolar, a tricky husband, quarrelsome friend and opium addict.
Now, on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 246th birthday, these Eastern counties are seeing a tour of this fascinating reimagining, from letters and records, of the way the poem resonates through the man’s own life. Pat Whymark writes and directs; her partner Julian Harries plays the Mariner.
Their tiny company Common Ground is better-known round here for cheerful Christmas-show spoofs but this is more ambitious and – despite some good dry laughs at the poet’s behaviour – more serious. We find the poet (Richard Lounds) in lodgings in 1810, away from his family and estranged from some friends, doing his lectures on Shakespeare and Milton with the laudanum-bottle on the table, the landlady chatty but exasperated, and Thomas de Quincey (Anthony Pinnick) his loyal and exasperated friend and fellow opium-eater, occasionally dropping in.
A series of flashbacks gives us his fairly unhappy marriage to Sarah and her grief at his neglect (when one of their infants died, he refused to come home but continued a walking tour of Germany and told her to “Bear it with Fortitude”). There is also an amusing glimpse of the Wordsworths, William (Pinnick again) and his besotted sister Dorothy; we get a nice evocation of how annoying they must have been to Sarah Coleridge, especially when her husband cries “William and Dorothy are like food and drink to me” and points out that she lacks “high sensibilities” and that Dorothy is a “perfect electrometer of feeling” .
Indeed the two women in multiple parts – Eloise Kay and Emily Bennett – are important not only in contrast to the self-obsessed Coleridge but because Whymark, also a composer, gives the piece a hypnotic, disturbing vocal and instrumental score (the two women and Pinnick play guitar, serengi and violin).
Sharp harmonies and eerie sounds create almost as much atmosphere as the poem itself. They sing verses from it, and from a sloping deck and ragged sail stage left, the whole narrative is performed by the rather magnificent Julian Harries. Each section reflects a time of dissolution, temper or torment for Coleridge, at his desk stage right or with the others at the centre. Projections create sea, sky, cloud; but it is Harries’ grey beard and glittering eye that carry it.
This is one of the problems for the writer, and for Lounds as Coleridge. As so often, the poet is a lesser creature than his work. It would take a peculiar brilliance in any actor to make him more than mainly, frankly, annoying. Some trimming of the script showing moments from his life would help (and may yet, tours always develop). The saturnine elegance of Pinnick’s de Quincey certainly does help, though. Lounds is best when at his most agonized, not least because that is when the Mariner Harries (not a bad electrometer-of-feeling himself) is at his most tormentedly stormy. In an excellent late moment the mariner explains to us why he bearded the poor flustered wedding-guest:
“I pass, like night, from land to land; I have strange power of speech; That moment that his face I see, I know the man that must hear me: To him my tale I teach.”. Harries fixes the wayward poet with his glittering eye: out of his own lines Coleridge stands rebuked. Nice.
touring mainly one-night stands:
box office https://www.commongroundtc.co.uk/shows to 11 Nov. Bures, Southwold, Aldeburgh next