Sail with the spirits at St Andrews poetry festival

Coleridge epic works well with circus theatre, says Colin Will

The Byre Theatre. Picture: Facebook
The Byre Theatre. Picture: Facebook
The Byre Theatre. Picture: Facebook

The English language is strange to say the least, but one of the more amusing elements of the world’s most commonly spoken language is the lovely little idioms which pepper our speech.

I am fairly certain we all use many of these quirky phrases on an almost daily basis without really knowing or understanding their origin.

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One of my favourite idioms is to have an albatross hanging round one’s neck, which conjures up such a wonderful image.

The saying to have an albatross around the neck is often used to describe a heavy burden one might be carrying. This strange little saying is used in a whole manner of situations and in just the last few weeks I’ve noticed it being used to describe everything from the vast quantities of waste generated by Ghana’s capital city, Accra; to the burden of Sellafield on the British taxpayer; and the 4-4-2 formation used by Manchester United.

Quite a variety of uses for such an obscure phrase. But where does the notion of an albatross around your neck actually come from? The answer lies in the words of 18th Century English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his longest major poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner tells the story of a mariner who, on his return from sea, stops a man on his way to a wedding to tell him tales of his voyage. As the story unfolds, it encompasses nightmares, dreams, torment, anger, ghosts and, finally, penance.

The poem begins with the ship being driven off course by stormy weather and ending up in the Antarctic.

An albatross leads the ship out of danger and into calmer waters, but despite this good fortune the mariner shoots the bird.

The ship’s crew berate the mariner for killing the bird, but soon change their mind in favour of his actions.

However, fate plays a hand and the crew are punished for supporting such a crime as the winds that led the ship to safety soon leave it stranded in calm waters with no wind to move it on.

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Another change of mind by the crew leaves the mariner again being blamed for the ship’s misfortune. His punishment is to wear the dead albatross around his neck – his penance for its death and the bad luck this brought upon the ship. Hence the saying we have adapted into so many modern day situations of having an albatross around one’s neck.

The poem goes on to tell of the deaths of each and every crew member, leaving only the mariner still alive. The spirits of the crew members finally sail the boat to safety, saving the mariner, who is left to wander the land for the rest of his days telling everyone he meets of his tale of guilt.

As a fan of the albatross around the neck I am delighted that the showcase event at StAnza 2014 will be this epic poem played out by circus, theatre and dance.

The opening extravaganza of Scotland’s international poetry festival, which takes place annually in the Fife town of St Andrews, for the first time ever features acrobatics by the Square Peg Contemporary Circus as they open the festival with Rime.

Associate director of Square Peg and performer, Tomos James, explains why this poem works so well for circus theatre. He said: “I love Rime because of the rhyming, the rocking motion, the momentum of the words. This energy makes it a great poem to turn into circus. The phrases roll off the page, we rhyme and repeat with our bodies, throw out glimpses of inner life, we play with the metaphors and embrace the fantastical.

“In our show, we are all invited to board the mariner’s ship. We’ll share his joy, guilt, thirst, we’ll touch death’s veil, we’ll sail with the spirits and, perhaps, like the bewildered wedding guest in the poem, be left wondering WHY he shot that albatross?”

Rime tells the story of the poem using a combination of group acrobatics, human towers, Chinese pole, ropes and flips, drawn together by one of the UK’s freshest new circus companies.

The show premiered in April 2012 at Camden’s Roundhouse and was then performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in the same year, picking up a coveted Herald Angel Award. It returns to Scotland for its first large-scale tour of the show with StAnza proud to be hosting its first date.

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The spectacular circus and modern dance show, Rime, takes place at the Byre Theatre, St Andrews on Wednesday 5 March at 7:30pm.

• Colin Will is chair of the Board of Trustees at StAnza, Scotland’s international poetry festival.