Rime of the Ancient Mariner
The Tiger Lillies @ Her Majesty’s Theatre
8:30pm, Wed 12 Mar 2014
Once upon a time – say, way back in 2000 – I would write about shows I’d seen within eighteen hours of actually having seen them. Crazy, hey? I’d get home at about 1am – no Fringe Club shenanigans in those days – and sit down, brain-dump out some words, then go to bed with no lingering self-imposed pressure hanging over me.
Ah, those were the days.
Of course, it meant that I was doing a bunch of writing (and I was much shitter at the words n’stuff back then) whilst a bit dozy and wrong-headed… which is the only reason I can think of for the words blurted out for The Tiger Lillies’ visit to the 2000 Festival, Shock Headed Peter. See, despite those words indicating that I liked the show quite a bit, the lingering memory was that it was a classic instance of style-over-substance; at the 2014 Festival launch last year, their presence was very low on the list of priorities.
But, as the hubbub around this year’s Festival grew, a lot of people I spoke to mentioned Rime of the Ancient Mariner as one of the shows they were looking forward to the most… and I got well-and-truly sucked in by their enthusiasm. A trade-off against one of the Zorn performances was required, but I committed to the date and got a great seat and… later… wondered why I’d bothered.
But initial impressions were wondrous: trapped between two projection surfaces, The Tiger Lillies almost swim in ethereal light, as Mark Holthusen’s multi-layered visuals wrap around them. The projected images provide the set around which the trio play, and their aural signature – Martyn Jacques’ alternating growls and falsetto atop a rich musical backing – remains undiluted, as they churn through a nineteen-song set inspired by Coleridge‘s titular poem.
But a couple of songs in, I started feeling a little… well, removed. The scrim at the front of the stage being used as a projection surface was thin, but it still obscured the trio behind; it added a mottled, hazy quality to their presence. Worse, my brain started convincing me that the scrim was more like a barrier between the performers and myself; I was starting to feel emotionally disconnected from the show.
Then came the song Land of Ice – and the lyrics were… well, bad. Banal, even. The type of awfulness that made me yearn for Van Dyke Parks‘ murderous “put on your sailin’ shoes,” from a show I swore I’d never speak of again. And suddenly any spell that had been cast over me had been broken: suddenly, all I could see before me were a trio of men with a pleasing aural aesthetic singing bad songs whilst half-hidden by imagery whose magic was fading fast.
I really didn’t get into Rime of the Ancient Mariner. At all. And it wasn’t like I was afforded the entertainment of anger, either; more a sense of clock-watching ennui, which is far, far worse. But some of the people around me… oh. They loved it. Standing-ovation loved it. And that encouraged me to start chewing my mental cud: what had those people seen in this performance that I had not?
Or did I get that question the wrong way around? What had I seen that they had not? And had I seen it in this piece, or one of hundreds of other pieces?
Regardless: as the house lights came up, I felt mightily disappointed in what I’d seen. It had been a quality production, for sure, with a sumptuous presentation that almost coaxed some emotion from me… but in the end it felt overblown, like the production had collapsed under its own weight. And, as some people tried to exit Her Majesty’s during the curtain call (much to the raised-eyebrow chagrin of the standing-o-meisters), The Tiger Lillies bid them adieu by flicking Vs at their turned backs.
And all I thought was: way to go, boys. Way to endear yourselves to the audience.
And then I left, still disappointed… but now, also, annoyed.
— Pete Muller (@festivalfreakAU) March 12, 2014