Stars, arts and science combine for digital retelling of Coleridge classic

Stars of the stage and screen, arts and music are helping to transform one of English Literature’s most celebrated poems for the digital age.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is an epic tale of adventure, fear and fascination – a work of 18th century science fiction that has prophetic messages for the natural world, climate breakdown and mental health globally relevant in the 21st century.

With that in mind, the Ancient Mariner Big Read – commissioned by The Arts Institute, University of Plymouth – brings together renowned public figures, artists and scientists to retell the poem for a modern audience.

The 150-verse poem has been divided into 40 readings, with each reader recording a sequence of three to four verses to be broadcast over the internet, day by day. Once complete, it will be available to listen to as one symphonic piece with a specially designed soundscape by Jay Auborn.

Free to access, the readings will also be accompanied by outstanding work from international contemporary artists and paired with relevant scientific research in fields including marine science and climate breakdown.

The project has been curated by author Philip Hoare, artist Angela Cockayne and Dr Sarah Chapman, Director of The Arts Institute. They previously collaborated on the Moby-Dick Big Read, which has gathered over 10 million hits since first being broadcast in 2012.

Launched on Saturday 18 April with a reading by actor and activist Jeremy Irons, the Ancient Mariner Big Read will also feature recordings by Tilda Swinton, Hilary Mantel, Lemn Sissay and Alan Bennett.

Philip Hoare, author of Leviathan or, The Whale, winner of the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize, said:

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a founding fable of our modern age. We are the wedding guests, and the albatross around the Mariner's neck is an emblem of human despair and our abuse of the natural world. Yet in its beautiful terror there lies a wondrous solution – that we might wake up and find ourselves saved. Art knows no boundaries and the Ancient Mariner Big Read will be an inclusive work of audio and visual art that reflects the sweeping majesty of Coleridge's poem.

“It is no coincidence, perhaps, that this poem is the first great work of English literature to speak to isolation and loneliness. For those facing restricted access to culture in these difficult times, the Ancient Mariner Big Read offers a brand-new digital work of art to be experienced at home – in a wild voyage into the unknown and watery world.”

The 40 readings are accompanied by works from artists including Cornelia Parker, Marina Abramovi?, Linder Sterling, Mark Dion, Gordon Cheung and Gavin Turk, who have interpreted the themes through perspectives such as ecology and the environment, colonialism, morality, and human vulnerability.

Angela Cockayne, Reader and Associate Lecturer at Bath Spa University, said:

“If ever there was a time for culture it is now. The Mariner – although written 200 years ago – is more pertinent than ever, forewarning us at our own peril about the abuse of nature, and how we are all interconnected. The voyage ends prophetically but eternally hopeful, with lines since used in a familiar hymn, imploring us to ‘love all creatures great and small’. This contemporary voyage draws together a talented interdisciplinary crew, working in film, photography, drawing, painting, and sculpture. The outcome is breathtaking, a circular journey of loss, grief and retribution but also one of hope for our troubled times.”

The project also coincides with a touring exhibition – Mariner: A Painted Ship Upon a Painted Ocean – which opened at The Levinsky Gallery, University of Plymouth last year and has since toured to The Edge, Andrew Brownsword Gallery in Bath, with a future opening date at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton later this year.

Dr Sarah Chapman added:

“The sea has been a rich source of inspiration for many artists, poets and musicians in creating celebrated artworks that continue to stand the test of time. This project continues that legacy, uniting a love of language, poetry and how words and visual metaphor can cut across time and cultural barriers with a long-standing love of the sea, both as a physical and creative space. Informed by the latest research into marine science and marine pollution, the movement and migration of peoples across the seas, hidden postcolonial histories and human vulnerability and isolation, it reframes a classic narrative and gives a new perspective to an urgent ecological message.”

The Ancient Mariner Big Read is supported by: The Box, Plymouth; The Edge Andrew Brownsword Gallery, University of Bath; John Hansard Gallery, University of Southampton; The Marine Institute, University of Plymouth; Arts Council England; and dBs Pro.

More about the University's involvement in the Ancient Mariner Big Read