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Impressions from Paris: "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Impressions from Paris:  "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Published on February 19, 2014
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

With Fiona Shaw and Daniel Hay-Gordon

Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord
Performed by Fiona Shaw, with Daniel Hay-Gordon
Directed by: Phyllida Lloyd
Creative Associate:  Kim Brandstrup
Set Design:  Chloé Obolensky
Lighting Design:  Jean Kalman and Mike Gunning
Sound Design:  Mel Mercier

After seeing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner performed here by Fiona Shaw and Daniel Hay-Gordon, I have to wonder if Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 18th century poem was the inspiration for much of Disney's film "The Pirates of the Carbibbean", complete with the walking dead and other surreal and ghastly imagery!   

The poem is as challenging to read as Shakespeare can be, and as rich. If it had been performed by the award winning actress simply as a monologue, in spite of Shaw's intensity and eloquence (or maybe because of it), it would have remained an overly cerebral experience. Shaw and Hay-Gordon, who joins her as an accompanying dancer, work together beautifully to bring the poem vibrantly to life. The text becomes not only accessible, it becomes visible, imprinting itself into visceral memory as if we have lived the experience ourselves. Even if we don't understand every word. Even if we have never read the poem before. In this regard the work is thoroughly successful.

It starts out very pedestrian. Shaw brings audience members out into the performance space one by one. She hands them a staff to lean on. She places an old hat on their head. She bends their left shoulder slightly forward, steps back to view better. But no. And again, no. They are sent back to their seats. She is clearly auditioning them for the evening's work. It is done quite casually, but so many times it begins to feel ritualistic. Her ultimate choice is a young man (Hay-Gordon) looking rather scruffy and unshaved. Both wear simple black pants and t-shirt.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.

She moves him about like a puppeteer, raising his hand to her shoulder to stop her from advancing; placing his hand on her wrist to hold her back. He isn't really involved, just filling in where she needs him. When she sets him down on an old box, in the role of a wedding guest who must hear this tale, Shaw has to stop him from texting. It's funny. She sets his phone down to place his hand on his heart, bringing him back into the action of the poem.

By the time he extends his arms into a bird's broad wingspan, he has slipped into the realm of poetic movement and what we usually call 'dance'. A giant sail drapes down behind, casting the shadow of his wings in larger scale and raising his great albatross into the sky. When Shaw as the old Mariner shoots him down, just because she has her bow handy and feels like it, this bird has become dearly loved. The beauty of Hay-Gordon's wafting flight cannot be forgotten, much as I imagine Anna Pavlova's Dying Swan was never completely forgotten by any who saw it.

The Mariner is cursed for having killed this sweet and glorious bird, which now lies draped dead across her shoulders. At first it is Hay-Gordon draped there, like a burden to bear, but he is soon replaced by that staff we saw during the 'audition', which serves to bring to life the powerful Christian imagery that is inherent in the poem. The wind dies out, the ship's crew dies of thirst and exposure in the Antarctic wasteland. The one survivor, the poet himself, is thrust into a living nightmare of suffering and terror, guilt and regret, surrounded by the dead bodies of his mates.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.

The rhyme keeps rolling, and the desperation and horror of the narrator refuses to pause in what Shaw beautifully described later in the evening (in a Q&A session) as a spiral whirling down into the deepest darkness, and returning again upward into the light of redemption and relief. One actress, one dancer, a poem, a sail… and a story that has to be told, again and again, as a form of penance.

Overall, there was little time to digest the rich rush of language. More than once I felt as if I were being crushed by the harsh and relentless assault of words. Given the Mariner's desperation to finish his horrific tale, once begun, this artistic choice is justifiable. Nevertheless, I would have appreciated the 'dance' being better integrated into the overall work. It felt as if the movement were the servant of the words, rather than a shared vehicle for the work's passionate expression. This isn't to say I wanted more 'dance'. Rather, I wish that Shaw's movements were driven by that greater depth and awareness of body and being that brings poetry to even the most ordinary human gesture. Dance can be, after all, simply this:  the poetic expression of human feeling through the body.


The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was performed at BAM in December 2013 as part of the Next Wave Festival.

Fiona Shaw is an award-winning Irish actress and theatre director. She is popularly known for her role as Aunt Petunia in the Harry Potter films, but is also known for numerous works she has performed in or directed at the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Old Vic, the Barbican, BAM, and on Broadway. She is Officer des Artes et des Lettres, and was awarded an honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).

Phyllida Lloyd is an award-winning British director known for her extravagant opera and theatre productions, including "The Virtuoso" for the Royal Shakespeare Company (1991) and "Six Degrees of Separation" for the Royal Court (1992). She directed "Mamma Mia!" for both theatre and film. Her film credits also include "The Iron Lady "and "Glorianna".

Daniel Hay-Gordon trained in classical and contemporary dance at the Rambert School and performs freelance throughout Europe and the US. In addition, he creates his own work in dance and film and is the co-founder of Impermanence Dance Theatre. NY audiences may remember him in the work of Bill T. Jones.

Kim Brandstrup is a choreographer who has studied film making in Denmark and dance at the London Contemporary Dance School. She won the 2010 Olivier Award for Best New Dance, and has choreographer worldwide for both dance and opera productions.


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