The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

3 out of 5 stars

I'd stump up 20 quid to hear Fiona Shaw recite the 'London A-Z'. She has all the qualities you'd expect in a great old-school actress (charismatic, can make you cry by lifting an eyebrow and can project like a fog horn even in this acoustical nightmare of a tunnel beneath Waterloo station). Plus she has one that too many actors don't have: she can channel a poem and hold you spellbound with it, communicating its meaning and sound and story with every fibre – not just hammily skipping round pretending to be the characters in it.

Sadly, the same praise can't be extended to 'Mamma Mia!' director Phyllida Lloyd who seems determined, in this staging of Coleridge's powerful gothic ballad, 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', to avoid the focused, stripped-down setting that was so potent in Shaw's extraordinary one-woman performance of TS Eliot's 'The Waste Land' at Wilton's Music Hall (in 1997 and 2010). There's a little too much changing hats and yanking on a large sail which doubles as the backcloth; and a lot too much of some less-than-relevant twirling and corpse impersonations from dancer Daniel Hay-Gordon.

Shaw is terrific: fixing us with her 'glittering eye' and moving through the poem with the musicality of a singer, the vocal range of an entire crew of sailors and the uncanny assurance of a psychic. Which is a perfectly accurate take on the mix of folk ballad and opiate revelation in Coleridge's most-quoted poem.

When you lift a well-known text from private page to public stage, you hope for thrills and freshness, and both are here: the tension never drops in an evening that feels like an exorcism as well as a literary event.

Posted:

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