The long title, William Burroughs Caught in Possession of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, gets stretched even further in translation by adding “de Samuel Taylor Coleridge”. Not that you could forget the opium- smoking poet. Old Sam’s skeleton dangles in mechanics’ overalls above a garage forecourt that doubles as the famously accursed ship. His pockets hide a tidy stash of hallucinogenic drugs.
The writer Johny Brown – also a DJ and a musician – has dreamt up a bizarre hijacking of Coleridge’s poem by William Burroughs and fellow voyagers from the Beat Generation: the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, the punk guitarist Johnny Thunders, the feminist writer Kathy Acker. “Tell me what you see,” cries Burroughs during this quest into no-man’s land. Frenzy descends; the dead albatross is disembowelled. Euphoria infuses a nightmarish sharing of body and blood, a parodic last supper. As the high wears off, the characters fuse back into the poem, intoning it as a compass to steer by.
I cannot imagine a better Burroughs than Denis Lavant. Unmistakable with his bullet head, piercing eyes and wiry physique, he starts debonair, flourishing a cane and trademark trilby, and grows irascible, rebellious, tormented – a tortured leader afflicted by his personal albatross (Burroughs notoriously shot his wife in a drunken William Tell re-enactment). Conflicting voices fight within him until he accepts the redemptive power of love. He groans remorse over the bodies of his now-dead shipmates.
If the basic premise is intriguing, the text is sometimes uneven or didactic. Without sure direction, it could wear thin. Happily there is no danger of that with Dan Jemmett, the Paris-based British director who won the Molière award for Best Young Director in 2002. Jemmett’s penchant for darkness and excess, mainly focused on Elizabethan tragedies to date, brings out the best in this unclassifiable piece. It has no frills, real force and respect for the music of the spoken word.
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