Some poetry was meant to be performed, and there are few pieces more worthy of the stage than “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
With its beautiful structure and gripping tale of woe, it makes for fantastic theater, especially as conveyed by Irish actress Fiona Shaw, who grapples physically and emotionally with Coleridge’s text in the U.S. premiere of director Phyllida Lloyd’s adaptation, playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater.
The poem, written in 1798, helped to usher in the Romantic period of English poetry and tells the story of a seaman who travels south until his ship is hit in an ice storm. There, the crew is joined by an albatross, which follows them and eats their food. But when the mariner shoots the albatross, bad luck seems to follow the crew. The wind ceases to blow and rain does not come, so the sailors hang the albatross around the mariner’s neck as penance. Eventually, the mariner’s various sufferings lift the curse of the albatross, and the bodies of some of his fallen crew become reanimated and bring him back home.
On stage, Shaw takes up every role within the epic poem as she recites it, changing hats and accents at will. Although she wears garb that allows her to walk through the audience almost unnoticed before the performance, her captivating voice and dominating demeanor mean that the audience, in Coleridge’s words, “cannot chuse but hear” her story. In her endeavor, she is aided by the movements of the silent Daniel Hay-Gordon, who provides most of the motion to Shaw’s words.
Numerous times throughout the production, Hay-Gordon becomes a human prop on a nearly bare stage, only moving when Shaw wills him to move as she manipulates his limbs for the purposes of the poem. As the companions of the mariner drop dead from thirst, Hay-Gordon collapses multiple times—like a puppet with his strings cut. But with Shaw’s total control over her marionette, there are too few moments when she lets him off the leash to truly express the feelings or experiences of the poem.
The staging was simple: a few stacked boxes, a model ship, and a raised sail as the backdrop. Light, sometimes a harsh white and other times ominously colored as the blood-red setting sun, illuminated both the stage and the audience. Often, the light shined against the sail, giving it the quality of a projection screen, upon which Hay-Gordon would cause shadows to appear, such as the albatross following the mariner or the sinking of the ship. However, these brief uses of the shadows underscored the untapped potential of a shadow play that was never realized. In all, while some of Lloyd’s concepts and creative themes were perfect for the production, too often she could have done more to bring Coleridge’s poem to life.
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” plays at the the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater (651 Fulton St.) through Dec. 22. There are $10 rush tickets available at the BAM box office 90 minutes before each performance for students with a valid ID.