Fiona Shaw as the Ancient Mariner? Not exactly, but the soul and spirit of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ’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.
Hay-Gordon, at first the wedding guest who is button-holed by the old salt, becomes the shadow of the albatross, a member of the stricken crew, the figure of Death and finally the aghast sailor himself, condemned to roam the world and tell his tale, like the Wandering Jew or the Flying Dutchman.
He then retreats to the depths of the tunnel, a sadder, wiser man, while Shaw lolls against the brick wall in her deck shoes and nautical navy jumper. 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.
Director Phyllida Lloyd’s production team includes designer Chloe Obolensky, lighting magician Jean Kalman and composer Mel Mercier; this is a high-end European event, presented in association with the Young Vic, and co-produced with the Athens and Epidaurus Festival and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
But it’s not weighed down by this, nor is Shaw cowed by the rum-ti-tum of the metre, playing the great lyrical passages in the Antarctic, as the voyage encounters an elemental screen of ice and mist and howling winds, with a rapturous rubato that transports us miles and millennia beyond the mundane merriment of the wedding party.
You’ll recognise the two great predicaments of “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink,” and the albatross round the neck (here signalled with the all-purpose staff as a penitential yoke), and Shaw invests her terrifying punishment with a staring stoicism, while the other sailors literally dice with Death on the foc’sle.
Shaw first wanders through the audience, trying on hats for size until she “stoppeth one in three” and luckily it’s the dancer. 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. And another great coup for Shaw, perhaps not as difficult to pull off as The Waste Land, but not far short, and just as memorable.