4 January 2012
London

My first theatre show of 2013, and damn, it was a goodun – Fiona Shaw incanting Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in the Old Vic Tunnels.

On Friday night, I went to the opening night of the wonderful, occasionally terrifying and always compelling Irish actress Fiona Shaw performing a spellbinding narration of Coleridge’s phantasmagoric poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, amid the Stygian gloom of the Old Vic Tunnels. Given the brevity of the run, the tinyness of the venue, and the kudos of Shaw (whose spoken-word version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land 15 years ago helped propel her to theatrical stardom), it’s become a white-hot ticket, even with Shaw gamely doing two shows a night. It’s an almost perfect fusion of source material, performance, direction and venue, and at just under an hour in length, it makes for a satisfyingly punchy show.

Director Phillida Lloyd has described the production as “the theatre of our childhood – of rhymes and sticks and a rope – a world where small things carry vast meaning”. In keeping with the scary children’s story quality of the poem, there’s an appealingly lo-fi ambiance to this production. The wooden stage is bare, but for a roped curtain fashioned into the sail of a ship, which gets raised and lowered at the beginning and end, and the rest is done through the creation of shadows on the walls, lit by some strategically placed spotlights. It has the intensely claustrophobic feel of telling ghost stories around a campfire late at night, and the simplicity of the staging allows the focus to be placed properly on Shaw’s magnetic narration. It’s billed as a double act – Shaw is joined onstage by a pretty faced dancer named Daniel Hay-Gordon – but in truth it’s Shaw’s show, something Hay-Gordon seems to understand intuitively. Less a collaborator than one of her props, he obligingly bends his lissome frame this way and that to form the characters and creatures described in the poem, like shadow-puppet theatre.

I’ve always found Shaw a captivating performer, even on occasions when I’ve found her particular form of alpha-female energy jarring and bordering on the histrionic (as she did in Peter Stein’s rather overhyped production of The Seagull in Edinburgh in 2003). In everything she does, she seems, literally, to be a giant presence – so much so that I’m always shocked when I’ve seen her on the Tube or occasionally wandering around Colombia Road Flower Market in the East End, looking more or less normal (she’s 5 ft 8 in real life) and not the 12 feet tall rampaging giantess of my imagination. Her performances are invariably bold, physically exhausting and infused with a fierce intelligence and an emotional intensity and ferocity that few other actresses or her or any other generation can match. Unsurprisingly, she seems especially well-suited to the female roles of classical and Shakespearean theatre, and her early successes included Katherine (from Taming of the Shrew), Mary Stuart and Medea, and a fair few men, including a celebrated turn as Richard II. In TV and film, she’s gone the way of most “complicated”, androgynous women who don’t fit easily into the roles of ingenue or faithful wife – playing a fair number of witches, including Marnie, a pissed-off coven leader in Season 4 of vampire-porn fest True Blood.

Watching her play both Wedding Guest and Mariner in Friday night’s show, I was struck by how convinvingly she found the epic scope of Coleridge’s poem, the pleasure she took in telling Coleridge’s tale (a strange and beguiling mix of sea shanty, Christian parable, and opium-fuelled mindtrip) and how apparently unconcerned she is about looking or sounding “rough” or “unfeminine”. She doesn’t hide the physical and emotional effort of her performances – in Rime, as when she played Galacia in Scenes From An Execution and Mother Courage at the National, you can feel the exertions of the role in her face and body and voice, but without it ever feeling like pretentious thespianising. This is a rare quality for actresses, especially English ones, who don’t tend to slum it and get messy. Shaw’s androgyny and her extrordinary face – handsome, rather than classically pretty – seems to release her from the kind of stereotyped acting practised by most other actresses, making her a thrillingly visceral, exciting performer. With the exception of Tilda Swinton, I can’t think of another British actress working today who embodies the same physical and emotional terrain.

Shaw had a marvellous time with Coleridge’s anguished characters and eerie, trance-like language, stomping around in a plain navy blue sweater, tying ropes, hurtling herself against walls and screaming blue murder (when the occasion demanded it). She was aided by the performance being set in the fabulously atmospheric gloom of the Old Vic Tunnels – dark, damp and apparently endless in their size, with the sounds of trains to and from Waterloo Station rumbling ominiously and continuously above our heads throughout the performance. The Old Vic, who produced this run of the show, took the interesting decision to dress the surrounding area, while leaving the stage bare – as you walk in, you pass a specially constructed jetty with its own underground lake (a nice reference to Coleridge’s oft-quoted line “Water, water everywhere/And not a drop to drink”) and on the way to the loos, an extraordinary deserted bar – the kind of disreputable old dump that you could imagine the Mariner staggering into and recounting his tale for the price of a nip of gin. It was wonderful stuff. The real power of the show, though, came not from elaborate sets or special effects, but the power of the human voice and our fear of the dark to ignite the imagination.

Towards the end of the poem, the Mariner says:

I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach,
Fortunately for us, we’ve got Fiona Shaw’s strange power of speech, which passes like night from land to land (often with the aid of TV signals) to entertain and enthrall us. Bravo indeed.
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