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"A gift for any performer": Dr Matt Wilkinson on playing The Ancient Mariner

College Fellow Dr Matt Wilkinson will be performing The Ancient Mariner in Jesus College Chapel on the 21 October for Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 250th birthday.

After studying at Cambridge, Matt Wilkinson trained as an actor in London. He is a popular science writer and speaker, voice artist, actor, and a Director of Studies in Natural Sciences at Jesus. His writing and other science communication activities are broadly concerned with the evolutionary history of life on Earth, and the value of an evolutionary world view. 

We asked Matt to tell us a bit about the play.

Have you ever done anything like this before?

Well, I’ve done plenty of plays, musicals, and light opera before, but The Ancient Mariner, which Geoff Page (the composer of and pianist for the show) and I first performed in 2019, was my first one-man show. It’s the most challenging work I’ve ever been involved with: its sustained storytelling, the difficulty of the piece, the demands it makes of my vocal technique and stamina, its emotional journey, not to mention the ability to remember the thing – all make for an intense but deeply rewarding experience as an actor/singer.

What made you want to get involved in this project?

I’d performed and seen/heard works by Geoff Page before, and have always been impressed by the quality of his music, which despite its richness and sophistication still manages to be wholly accessible – to my ears at least. Then there’s the iconic and scintillating text, which is a gift for any performer, and a timely meditation on our relationship with the natural world. Despite a certain trepidation at taking on such a demanding work, I jumped at the chance when Geoff approached me and Corkscrew Theatre with a view to putting it on in Cambridge.

How do you feel about performing in the College Chapel rather than on stage – will this affect your performance?

Acoustically, the Chapel is a very different space from a typical theatre, and while I’m going to enjoy the reverb, it will take a bit more work to get the text across. The narrow and deep disposition of the audience (I speak of their geographical arrangement, not individual character!) has implications for what I can do while still being visible. And there are inevitable constraints in terms of set and lighting.  I’ll miss the ropes we hung from the ceiling in the original performance, but I’m looking forward to working with the openness – particularly the height – of the space, with its great pillars evoking the masts of the mariner’s cursed ship, lost “on a wide, wide sea.”

How do you embody the character? Do you portray him as a sympathetic character or a villain?

I certainly won’t be portraying him as a villain. His (spoiler alert) shooting of the albatross is a senselessly violent and callous act, but his story is ultimately one of punishment and redemption. Importantly, his release comes when – unbidden – he finally opens his eyes and heart to the beauty of living things, including those he once found abhorrent: “he prayeth best who loveth best all things both great and small.” In this, the mariner can in a certain light be seen as an allegorical representation of us all, caught up in an ecological crisis of our own making, our future ultimately dependent on whether we can realise and embrace our kinship with the living world rather than ruthlessly exploit it.

Why a musical about the Ancient Mariner instead of, say, a spoken play?

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a beautiful and powerful work that certainly stands on its own when performed as a spoken word piece. But the music undeniably adds another dimension to it, and in my opinion, Geoff has captured the text perfectly to heighten the colour, emotion, and immediacy of the poem. To give one small example, when singing “swiftly, swiftly flew the ship”, the sense of exhilarating motion is palpable – I don’t even have to try to imagine the sun sparkling on the water and the wind in my face!

Does this production intersect with your love of science in the theatre?

It does indeed. While not a work of science theatre in the way that, say, Arcadia and Copenhagen are, in its celebration of the beauty of living things it captures what drew me to science in the first place. At times it comes across as natural history in theatre, with its careful and vivid descriptions of the changing movements of the heavens as one traverses the Earth, or of the bioluminescent “water snakes” beside the ship.

Have you got any other favourite works by Coleridge that you’d recommend?

I hate to admit it, but The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the only work of his that I’ve read! His 250th birthday celebrations mark a welcome opportunity for me to branch out.

Tickets for The Ancient Mariner