The Mariner’s Revenge starts off strange, and quickly amplifies to full-on bewildering. The overarching plot is a love-hate relationship between a sick sailor (Mark Knightley) and an anthropomorphic taxidermy albatross (Norma Butikofer). The story is told through a series of flashbacks and hallucinations using physical theatre, sea shanties, and the private rooms of the Admiral’s House.
We begin with the audience stood behind a closed door, listening to out-of-sight sea shanties. We are then led into a small room, sitting and standing up close with the scene’s actors – one attendee was even asked to mop the brow of the weary mariner. This kind of audience engagement proved hit-and-miss throughout the production; there were moments of great fun, such as being invited to dance by shanty-singing sailors, but also moments of confusion where actors struggled to convey how the audience should interact. That being said, there was boatloads of fun to be had with the production’s tongue-in-cheek humour and physical comedy.
The show quickly moves from banality to absurdity, as our sailor reveals he is spoken to by a dead albatross. We see the bird come to life, pecking and flapping, and this is followed by conversations and altercations between man and beast. I must say I found these scenes to be simultaneously intense and confusing. There is a case to be made that this conveys the sick man’s delirium, however I was left feeling that there was little plot to follow. Nonetheless, there were sparks of wonder as the actors recreated scenes of the high seas. A favourite motif of mine was the use of a model boat to demonstrate the sailors’ journey, paired with hauntingly ethereal vocals. The use of light and location was innovative and challenged the audience to reflect and engage with both site and medium.
The performance delves into themes such as love, trauma, and sanity, with varying levels of effectiveness. As the show approaches its end, its weirdness only increases: in a twist that would give Freud a run for his money, we see our sailor’s lover manifest as both bride and bird. The play’s final developments are once again difficult to follow – there is a baby, there is murder, there is cannibalism? I found the OTT nature of the weirdness veered into awkwardness, and left wondering if I had missed the point altogether. Staging the show in-the-round and blurring the lines between stage and audience proved positive for immersion, however I felt somewhat out of place and regretted being ‘immersively’ moved out of my seat and onto sore feet.
Producers at HistoryRiot describe their mission as giving audiences “a fresh sense of identity with the place in which they live and the historical sites they visit”, and I would certainly say their use of the venue brings new life into the historical site. The costume and music used make Greenwich’s maritime history immediately tangible, and I appreciated the ability to explore parts of the building not ordinarily open to the public.
This is a production with a strong cast and exciting exploration of sound, light, and space. The extent to which the audience is asked to engage brings history into glorious technicolour, and there are some truly inspiring moments. It is a shame, though, that I spent a good portion of the show in confusion, The Mariner’s Revenge is great historical fun best paired with rum.
Written by: Mark Knightley
Directed by: Briony O’Callaghan
Produced by: HistoryRiot and Tramshed
1797: The Mariner’s Revenge plays at Old Royal Naval College until 12 November. Further information and bookings can be found here.