The Young Vic's production of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ran at the Old Vic Tunnels last week (4-13 January 2013).
Telling the story of a sailor who has returned from a long sea voyage, Fiona Shaw (famed for her acclaimed rendering of TS Eliot's The Waste Land) acted as narrator and protagonist in this reworking of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most famous and longest poem.
Fiona Shaw as the Ancient Mariner? Not exactly, but the soul and spirit of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s riveting romantic poem, certainly. In just fifty minutes, and accompanied by dancer Daniel Hay-Gordon, Shaw brings alive the ghostly tale as both narrator and protagonist... What she’s done is channel the great poem, mashed it, and ushered it through the vaulted chamber with the aid of a big white tarpaulin, a model schooner, a subtle sound score – and the rumbling trains above - and some wonderful lighting... If you were literal-minded you’d say the poem needs three separate actors as narrator, guest and mariner (there’s a wonderful recording of John Neville, Robert Hardy and a growly Richard Burton). But this is a poetic staging of a highly theatrical and unusual poem, and it’s done as if in a dream, a spectral vision of an ancient story butting up against the real world, all the more potent and affecting for that.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ballad, sometimes treated as if it was a prescient essay in autobiography, is a blend of sea shanty, dream vision and religious parable - a nightmarish journey into the depths of guilt that’s also a meditation on repentance and the power of prayer. Fiona Shaw is well suited to its mix of earthy primitivism and wildly supernatural imagination. She imparts verve and vivacity to the dark, fluid lines and is nicely supported by dancer Daniel Hay-Gordon... But The Waste Land is full of different voices and tonal changes, whereas Coleridge’s writing feels less concentrated and at times formal and severe... There’s not quite enough menace, and the poem’s essential flatness...makes for dynamism rather than complexity.
Shaw, casually dressed in jumper and trousers, greets the audience as if we are ourselves the wedding guests. It's an idea that might have been played more fruitfully in Phyllida Lloyd's production which, until its final seconds, simply uses the Old Vic Tunnels under Waterloo station as a slightly damp and musty traditional theatre, rather than exploiting its atmospheric and dramatic potential. Some of the most menacing moments come from Jean Kalman and Mike Gunning's lighting and the eerie glimpses of Shaw's shadow looming on a wall. Shaw is joined on stage by dancer Daniel Hay-Gordon who flaps around as the albatross and stares glassily as a dead sailor, but for much of the hour-long show he feels surplus to requirements. Shaw is so physically and vocally hyperactive that she entirely commands the stage – though not always in a good way.
There were moments in this production when I heartily wished Fiona Shaw would put a sock in it, too. She is a brilliant but wayward actress who seems oblivious to the fact that less can sometimes mean more...Why not simply allow the words themselves to do the work? Why this constant need to embellish and overemphasise?... Here we just get the mariner banging obsessively on. The director, Phyllida Lloyd, attempts to ginger things up with a dancer who impersonates the albatross, the dead sailors and sometimes the ancient mariner himself. It seems a rather desperate and pretentious strategy to add variety to the proceedings. The words should be enough.
I'd stump up 20 quid to hear Fiona Shaw recite the 'London A-Z'. She has all the qualities you'd expect in a great old-school actress (charismatic, can make you cry by lifting an eyebrow and can project like a fog horn even in this acoustical nightmare of a tunnel beneath Waterloo station). Plus she has one that too many actors don't have: she can channel a poem and hold you spellbound with it, communicating its meaning and sound and story with every fibre...the same praise can't be extended to 'Mamma Mia!' director Phyllida Lloyd who seems determined, in this staging of Coleridge's powerful gothic ballad, 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', to avoid the focused, stripped-down setting that was so potent in Shaw's extraordinary one-woman performance of TS Eliot's 'The Waste Land' at Wilton's Music Hall (in 1997 and 2010). There's a little too much changing hats and yanking on a large sail which doubles as the backcloth; and a lot too much of some less-than-relevant twirling and corpse impersonations from dancer Daniel Hay-Gordon.
Shaw's expressive range effortlessly encompasses the poem's many changes of tone, from nonchalance ("Why look'st thou so? 'With my crossbow, I shot the Albatross,'" she shrugs, in casual denial of the significance of her action), to gnawing guilt and frozen, hag-ridden horror. And she is more than ably supported by the personable Hay-Gordon, whose easy pliancy lends itself to the many characters between whom he moves... But for all the performers' virtuosity and Lloyd and Brandstrup's conceptual deftness, I found myself wondering more than once whether the staged action added to our appreciation of Coleridge's gothically descriptive words... There were moments, too, when Shaw's delivery seemed almost too sophisticated... In a perfect world we might also see Hay-Gordon improvising to these seascapes, employing the eloquent ebb and flow that he brought last year to Ravel's Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé.
The location of this Young Vic co-production in the Old Vic Tunnels is suitably atmospheric. The walls are rough and trains rumble overhead... Lloyd’s staging is simple but strong, with few props (a stick and a model ship) and one set-piece (a large canvas sail upon which shadows are occasionally projected)... Coleridge’s text can be difficult to fathom but, as Shaw proves, it’s still valid as a drama of horror and redemption. She certainly invests herself in this stormy saga of a cursed dead bird and a ghost ship with a corpse crew. Her eyes glitter with moisture as she recites the famous lines “Water, water every where ... Nor any drop to drink.”