The Shipwrecked House is a performance of poems from Claire Trévien’s debut collection of the same name. But trust Trévien, who has contributed to a whole load of exciting poetry projects – writing 100 poems in one day to raise money for the charity Refuge; organising Penning Perfumes, a collaboration between poets and perfumiers; editing the online reviews website Sabotage – to create an immersive theatrical event, rather than a simple staged reading.
The poems themselves are intricate, surreal tales of domesticity disturbed by the encroachment of the sea, or by other dark things that the sea represents. They’re often written in naturalistic, teetering lines that translate well to performed speech:
“The world has ended, or, at least,/Most people have.”
“Do you prefer your pearls cultured in the art/Of oology, or simply coated in fish scales?”
“Sure, she looks human, but below/She is a snake wrapped around a cello.”
These witty verbal switches are echoed by the production’s sound and lighting designers, Oliver Barrett and Claire Childs respectively, who move the stage through a series of watery states, from hushed deeps, to the bright calm of a seaside home, to the confusion of a violent storm. And just as the poems are full of shining details, so Gary Campbell’s set reveals a host of small surprises. Trévien hoists a rope and hauls a sheet of white tarpaulin into a billowing sail, hangs her yellow mackintosh on a hanger that slips comically to the floor, takes a lantern and little LED lights out of battered boxes and cases. Tom Chivers, the director (and head of The Shipwrecked House’s publisher and production company, Penned in the Margins), finds inventive ways to help Trévien segue between the poems, while retaining a sense of a cohesive whole. Thought has gone into every aspect of the production, including its smell (created by Sarah McCartney and 4160 Tuesdays), and it pays off nicely.
Just occasionally, Trévien’s voice is drowned by the roar of the soundscape, and a few moments that require a larger character than the sweetly chatty narrator don’t work so well. She introduces Mélusine, a fantastical figure of Breton folklore, in the style of a circus ringmaster, and her gamine presence doesn’t entirely convince in the brief role. Performing the dark, clever column-poem ‘Sing Bird’, she conducts a dialogue with a scuzzy, pre-recorded male voice. As a dramatic device, it’s a cool idea, and a good example of the performance’s imaginativeness, but the skilled complexity of the original poem is blurred.
Those are small missteps, however. Overall, The Shipwrecked House provides Trevien’s strange, magical poetry with the platform it deserves.
The Shipwrecked House is on tour until 9 January. For more information and tickets, see Penned in the Margin’s website.