Fiona Shaw performing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: arguably, two national treasures sharing the stage at the Old Vic Tunnels. Having seen Shaw’s delicious performance of The Waste Land (if you haven’t seen it you can watch an excerpt here), I was prepared to be impressed. I wasn’t disappointed.
Under the direction of Phyllida Lloyd, Shaw half-recites, half-performs this 50 minute rendition of Coleridge’s 1798 poem. The Old Vic Tunnels proves an apt space: dark, eerie, and with the regular rumbles of overhead trains providing a liminal soundscape, the setting is an excellent compliment to Coleridge’s haunting verse. Shaw builds an anticipatory atmosphere in the pre-show, wandering around looking for a companion, an audience. She tries a pair of hats on a couple of ordinary punters before seemingly randomly selecting Daniel Hay-Gordon, the dancer who accompanies her verse with movement to tell the Mariner’s story. The atmosphere Shaw cultivates before she begins to speak is one of the finest parts of the piece. Replicating the Mariner’s compulsion to tell his story, seeking his audience (“The moment that his face I see / I know the man that must hear me”), Shaw draws out the essence of the poem: the need to narrate, to change, to tell.
Shaw’s performance, overall, is hard to fault. Her handling of the verse is sure, her lightness of touch is a delight. She makes use of the regular rhythm of the verse while maintaining a distinct freshness, as if she, and we, are coming upon the lines for the first time. She brings to life the raconteur, picking up and discarding characters and trading them with Hay-Gordon to elucidate the narrative. Her physical journey is also strong – the “throats unslaked and black lips baked” of the mariners appear before us in Shaw; the struggle and pain of the journey seems etched in her every limb.
Hay-Gordon is also excellent: compelling, and utterly physically commanding. Kim Branstrup’s choreography is largely very strong, simple, and deliciously unpretentious. Hay-Gordon’s albatross combines dance with physical shadow puppetry and is one of the standout moments of the piece. Similarly, he darts around the stage in a gravity-defying personation of the crew, dropping down one by one.
And yet there remains something unsatisfying about this work. My suspicion is that there was a certain tension missing in the piece due to its lack of relationships. Arguably, Rime of the Ancient Mariner is all about the relationship between the Mariner and his audience – the reading audience, aligned in the frame with the wedding guest. While there is a kind of relationship between Shaw and Hay-Gordon, it is in constant flux as they change and trade characters, and there is far greater focus on Shaw and the language than on Hay-Gordon’s physical storytelling, so he feels somewhat underused. The pre-show was so strong because of the intense connection between Shaw and the audience, and this went largely unmaintained in the body of the piece. There is one wonderful moment when the audience, illuminated by the red light of an outdoor heater, become the “crimson shadows” of the Mariner’s vision, but this connection is broken all too soon.
In many ways, this is a beautiful piece of theatre. Technically it is well judged, simple and sparse. Mel Mercier’s soundscape transports us from place to place, a particular highlight being the far-off sounds of the wedding guests somewhere in the depths of the tunnels. Jean Kalman’s light suggests locations without dictating, and shifts us, sharp yet dreamlike, between narrative and frame.
As a final image, we watch Hay-Gordon’s wedding guest trudge away, using the full depth of the space, into the Tunnels’ deserted bar. He seems to bear the full weight of the story while Shaw, as the Mariner, seems released, relieved, leaning against a wall, the agony that grips him gone for a time. However, this highlights what was, for me, the problem with the piece. While Hay-Gordon seems marked and changed by what he has heard, the audience did not, because of our lack of connection to the story, the lack of relationship between piece and audience. This is impressive, but did not move us as much is it might have.
The Rime of the Ancient Marnier runs at the Old Vic Tunnels, in association with the Young Vic, until 13 January. For more information and tickets, see the website.