Saturday#3 – Bellowhead
Although not really Bellowhead at all.
When I bought tickets for The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner I wasn’t paying any attention. I knew it was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and I knew it was a production for kids but that was it. In fact, I thought it was a piece of physical theatre until several weeks later when my wife pointed out that no, British folk flag-fliers Bellowhead were responsible and I had completely got the wrong end of the stick. As it turned out, we both had.
The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner was actually directed by Jude Kelly, boss of the Southbank Centre, from an idea by Shân Maclennan and Keith Shadwick. Kelly has then co-opted her resident artists – Bellowhead and Lemn Sissay – into what is essentially a half-arsed school production, presumably solely on the grounds that they were under contract and she wants to squeeze as much out of them as possible. So right at the back of the stage are the eleven members of Bellowhead, in front of them half a dozen Pulse students and the rest of the space is taken up by scores of kids from local primary schools (guaranteeing a sell out crowd). The lights dim. There is an expectant hush. Then, spotlit in the darkness, Jan Blake begins an interminable Ladybird version of ‘The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner’. It goes on and on and on. After twenty minutes of this piss poor mauling of the poem – which contains the phrase “catapulted as if from a catapult” – half the audience of children and adults are bored out of their skulls and the other half are asleep.
But finally it is over; the Ancient Mariner (Sissay) takes the stage and the production itself can begin. Now, I’m not an actor or a spoken word artist but it seems to me that if I was going to stand up on stage and read a poem, I might familiarise myself with it beforehand. But what do I know. Sissay reads it in a ridiculous, barely intelligible “ancient” quaver which is bad enough but worse he has no idea where the emphasis in any of the sentences go. To add to this, he manages to get lost, despite constantly referring to the text which is on a stand in front of him. From time to time, the kids would stand and provide a chorus but these moments were all too rare and by the time the mariner had shot the albatross they were completely disengaged, playing with their socks and hair and waiting for it to finish. This meant that the stage was dominated by a tide of blankness.
The only quality of any type was provided by Bellowhead’s live score but even that was constrained by the horrible format. Once it was finally over and the kids had taken their bow, they were finally allowed to actually sing and it obliterated everything in the tedious, static production which had preceded this single moment. Afterwards, battered by the wind on Waterloo Bridge, I discovered my wife hated it even more than me and where I had thought the backing projection merely inoffensively bland, she was enraged by how generic, non-specific and misplaced the images were, particularly since there was nothing worth looking at on the stage. It could have replaced Blake’s awful preamble with a visual guide to the poem, which would have rendered Coleridge’s language less obscure to a young, modern audience; instead it was wallpaper. Horrendously ill-conceived all round.