The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

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Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. BAM Harvey Theater (see Off Broadway). By Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. With Fiona Shaw, Daniel Hay-Gordon. Running time: 45mins. No intermission.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: in brief

After the rapid demise of The Testament of Mary on Broadway, the formidable Fiona Shaw bounces right back to the New York stage, opposite dancer Daniel Hay-Gordon, in a theatrical version of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's epic poem about a doomed nautical voyage. Phyllida Lloyd, whose résumé runs from classical theater and opera to Mamma Mia!, directs the production for BAM's Next Wave Festival.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: theater review by David Cote

In film, one of the most costly and dangerous places to shoot is at sea. Movies set aboard ships are logistically hellish—especially if the director wants to avoid excessive reliance on CGI. Of course, sea travel is usually conjured in landlocked, dry-docked theater through timeworn scenic clichés: Cue the rippling blue fabric, tilt the deck, and let loose the stuffed parrot! In her spare, haunting and largely satisfying The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, director Phyllida Lloyd eschews such kid-theater devices. Translating Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 lyric ballad about a fateful voyage, Lloyd makes ingenious use of a few items—a hat, a staff and a large swath of canvas—to bring Coleridge’s watery world to life. Oh, she also has a couple of bodies at her disposal.

One of the bodies belongs to the magnificent Fiona Shaw (last seen in Broadway’s The Testament of Mary). Dressed plainly in street clothes and interacting with spectators as they take their seats, Shaw studiously abjures illusion…at least, not until she opens her mouth and delivers Coleridge’s bewitching, rhythmic verse with technical precision and ardor. Shaw is no stranger to dramatic recitations of great poetry, having performed T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land nearly 20 years ago. She respects meter and rhythm, but is no slave to the text. This is poetry made flesh, and if Shaw occasionally overdoes it to express pain or distress, she delivers the incantatory, thrilling verse with a smoky intensity.

The other person up there is young dancer Daniel Hay-Gordon, who remains mute throughout the 45-minute performance but is marvelously eloquent with his supple limbs. Arching his sinewy back and craning his arms, he becomes the poem’s unhappy albatross, cruelly shot by the titular sailor out of sport, melancholy or simple sadism. That casual killing seems to set the natural and supernatural worlds against the mariner and his fellow crew members. Rime is without question a weird piece of work: mystical, horrifying, humorous, a delicate spiritual allegory about the need to respect all of God’s creatures. And it’s also a cracking good yarn, featuring Death personified, Antarctic peril, zombie sailors and more.

Beguiling and thrilling in its own right, Rime leaves you hungering for more theatrical presentations of great poetry. Who will put Paul Giamatti together with Edgar Allan Poe? Laila Robins with Emily Dickinson? Mandy Patinkin with Walt Whitman? It doesn’t matter if the verse takes place on the ocean, in the mountains or in the farthest reaches of space; poetic genius and theatrical invention will get us there.—Theater review by David Cote

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote

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Sally Marie

It was one of my favourite things of the entire London season here. Extraordinary performances and so well judged choreographically too.