“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Once I finally settled down into the theatre (or whatever one would call this venue). I began to look around and observe specific setting elements. The audience was seated in a stadium like set up with the front seats coming right down to the floor, which also happened to be the stage. The stage itself went a lot deeper into the tunnels. There was the front main “stage” and one big archway will a sail-like curtain roughly covering a bit of the opening. Past this area, there was two high-arched doors leading into a third, back room. I drew a very rough sketch of the stage which you can view below! There was also very interesting lighting coming from the front left corner and front right corner of the stage that cave a spotlight effect and created a sharp contrast of lighting. The whole room had a very rustic feel and the lighting mixed with the rumbling of the London Underground gave the venue an eerie and mystical feeling that left me excited and anxious for the performance to begin. 

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 Shortly after 9pm, Fiona Shaw came out with two hats in hand. A tall, black top hat and a black hat with a wide brim. Dressed plainly in a mostly black outfit, Shaw began calmly trying the hats out on members of the audience. I unfortunately, did not get chosen for this test. Soon after that a young man with a mop of curly brown hair came in with a cup full of beer. Shaw went straight to this man, put the hat on his head and led him (looking very puzzeled indeed) down to the stage. It wasn’t long before the audience realized this was not some random man, but another performer! The recitation began. 

But it wasn’t a simple reciting of Samuel Coleridge’s poem, it was a “performance” of the poem. The main elements of the performance I found worthy to comment on was the abundance of movement, the use of shadow, and the use of props. 

First: movement. This reading of the infamous “Rime” was brought to a new level with the huge amount of movement involved. Fiona Shaw would recite lines and move her arms and body around trying to use this age-old mechanism of storytelling to tell of the harrowing adventures of the mariner. Using this movement was not distracting, and it enabled her to use the props (her partner included) to their full extent. 

Ms. Shaw’s partner, Daniel Hay-Gordon, was partly used as a prop, partly as a pantomime stand-in for other characters like the wedding guest and the mariner, and lastly (and most interestingly) performed different tidbits of modern dance at particular events in the poem. Some of these dances were meant to resemble an object and some were meant to display an emotion that correlated with the poem. For example, at one point, Hay-Gordon moved his arms and shoulders in an elegant and rythmic way that he resembled that of the “albatross” mentioned in the poem. Another time, he ran around gracefully falling, getting up, running around and falling gain repeatedly to evoke the craziness of the situation and the death/destruction/fear surrounding the mariner. This movement was successful in creating an alternate way of storytelling juxtaposed with Fiona Shaw’s recitation of the story. If the director’s intention with the performance was to add more visual stimulation, that endeavor was also successful. At times the dance did seem a little silly especially when it seemed sparatic, but mostly, the dancing and movement engaged the audience. With a poem so long, this was very much appreciated. 

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The use of shadow in this production was probably the most successful element in the performance. Both Shaw and Hay-Gordon used their props and their movements to the advantage of the shadow and the spotlight. There was very specific and intentional blocking (direction of stage movement) that brought both the actors right in front of the spotlights and reflected a huge image onto the wall and the piece of tarp that covered the back stage. This shadow was really captivating to watch and made the story spring to life and become more than just two people on a stage. Daniel Hay-Gordon bent over in a wide-brimmed hat and walking stick became the “ancient mariner” portrayed as a giant shadow. I found myself looking more and more at the shadow and not the people on stage, which I believe was the desired effect. The shadow also really added to the effects that the venue created. Namely, mystery, suspense, and even a bit of the supernatural. 

The use of props in this show was very minimalistic compared to many shows, but with a two person cast, the use of props is actually quite impressive. Main props included the aforementioned hats and walking stick, a miniature replica of a ship, a miniature telescope, and a pair of masks. Fiona Shaw also used wall pegs to climb up part of the stage and give the allusion of being on a ship. She also ran around and used ropes to tie up the curtain to make it look like the sail of a ship. The miniature ship was used in the spotlight multiple times. In one instance, Hay-Gordon picked up the ship and moved his body to imitate the movement of the ocean under the ship. The effect this made as relayed by the shadow, was beautiful. Overall, the props were pivotal in this performance’s telling of the mariner’s story. The props allowed for more visual stimulation along with the large amount of movement. They were simple, and many props were able to be used in more than one way. The props really helped the shadow images be more effective and impactful than just the human figures alone. 

A word on the acting…

I think that Fiona Shaw did a pretty good job of acting in this performance. I really liked her use of movement, but what I sometimes felt distracting was her vocal intensity. At some points, Ms. Shaw would intensify her vocals so that her voice would grate against her vocal cords and crack. This happened more than once and it was not very pleasing to the ear, nor was it necessary to the plot of the poem. Ms. Shaw’s vocals might have just been tired and overworked, but whatever the cause, the effect was that I was distracted by the voice cracking and paid less attention to the actual words. Also, Shaw’s voice cracking brought the audience’s attention to her gender. I think Shaw did a great job interpreting Coleridge’s words but the fact that she was picked to recite it instead of a man (which the ancient mariner presumably is) is an interesting fact to dwell on. I never really thought about gender until these voice cracks happened and I feel that the reminder was not effective in the telling of the story. 

I must admit, this kind of theatre is not my favorite. I have very little interest in old poetry, but I was pleasantly surprised with my entire experience at the Old Vic Tunnels. The venue was artistic and unlike anything I have ever seen. The performance was very different and happily exceeded my expectations. Although there was slight room for improvement, the overall effect of “Rime” was successful and entertaining. The set was fun to look at, the actors were energetic and transferred a lot of their energy directly to the audience, and the use of the light was captivating. I would recommend this show to anyone looking for a very unique and interesting theatre experience. The show runs about 1 hour long, which is a great length for a poem interpretation.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I had to face the extremely long and steep escalators on the way back home too. This time going down. EEK! Till next time!

~A

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