Friday, 4 January 2013

Theatre review: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This production has toured festivals, but this review is of the first London performance.

I'm not much of a poetry fan, but having missed Fiona Shaw's much-praised performance of The Waste Land I decided to make up for it with her interpretation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Apart from its most famous (and usually misquoted) line, all I knew about the poem was that seeing an albatross at sea isn't unlucky - it's killing it that's going to get you into trouble. And so it proves for the ancient mariner, who accosts a guest at a wedding and makes him listen to the grisly tale of what happened when, as a younger man, he'd shot the albatross that had until then brought his ship good luck. Soon the luck and wind run out, along with the fresh water, and the guilty sailor is strapped to the mast with the albatross around his neck, supernaturally staying alive to suffer and watch the rest of his crew die. Also, there's zombies.

Phyllida Lloyd directs Shaw, who performs the poem itself, and dancer Daniel Hay-Gordon, who helps her create the visual element of the story through movement, very sparse use of props, and light and shadow (Hay-Gordon's shadow creating the albatross on the white sail hung behind the performers in Chloe Obolensky's design is a highlight, although this idea of a human shadow puppet is subsequently underused.) The Old Vic Tunnels appear to have acquired an underground lake since I was last at the Leake Street end of it, which seems appropriate enough, and if it remains one of the less welcoming venues on the fringe at least it looks right for a ghoulish tale, with the audience seating added to with a few rows of benches and upturned wooden boxes at the front (seating is unreserved, despite my ticket saying otherwise; the tickets also list a "doors open" time but no start time, so I'm including 10 minutes' reading the Evening Standard and waiting for the show to start in the running time.)

Shaw starts the show amiably wandering around the audience, chatting to and even kissing the odd audience member, but things soon turn darker and she seems to relish the horrors of her tale. She's an enthusiastic performer of poetry and well-matched to the piece. I can't say it made me love the poem and I had my distracted moments but it was interesting enough - I wouldn't call it unmissable, although for Coleridge fans it probably is.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is booking until the 13th of January at the Old Vic Tunnels.

Running time: 1 hour straight through.

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