And till my ghastly tale is told, This heart within me burns.
Almost two years ago to the day I went to Wilton’s Music Hall to watch Fiona Shaw perform T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. On that occasion I was struck not only by Shaw’s performance but also by the perfect harmony between text and space, both of which were also achieved in the Young Vic Theatre’s production of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, performed by Shaw and dancer Daniel Hay-Gordon in the Old Vic Tunnels.
When my friend and I finally reached the venue after a few wrong turns in the grimy tunnels behind Waterloo Station, we were ushered into a cavernous space filled with a dank, musty smell and looming shadows cast on the damp stone walls. As the audience huddled together for warmth, Fiona Shaw, casually dressed in off-duty naval gear of baggy trousers and a woollen jumper, wandered through the rows of seats searching for the poor soul to whom she would deliver her ballad; immediately the audience was drawn in and felt involved, and even though it was Hay-Gordon whom Shaw plucked from the crowd to play the role of the Wedding Guest, before a single line of verse had been uttered the poetry had already been brought to life.
Perhaps the most striking element of this production was the physicality of it, not only from Hay-Gordon but also from Shaw, who deftly switched between the roles of narrator, Mariner and Guest. Shaw hurled herself about the stage, climbing a wall to reach a telescope and hauling on a rope to raise and lower a vast white sail that hung across one of the vaulted arches. For the most part, Hay-Gordon’s movements complemented (and even enhanced, as he used his body to cast shadows on the sail as we imagine the huge albatross would have done) Shaw’s compelling recitation of the poem, and she moulded him to her purpose. Yet there were one or two occasions where the dancer’s movements were too distracting and overshadowed the verse.
The paucity of props worked wonderfully, particularly the sail, silent and weighty in the gloom, and the Ancient Mariner’s staff. The latter doubled as the cross the sailer has to bear, both in the present as he searches for the man to whom he must tell his tale, and then, as Shaw buckled under its weight as it lay across her shoulders, standing in for the albatross in a potent echo of Christ’s crucifixion.
Hints of Shaw’s native Irish accent could be heard throughout, lending the Mariner’s words an extra earthiness. In its lack of roles, The Rime doesn’t present the same opportunities for single recitation as The Waste Land, however Shaw’s command over the verse ensured that we were carried along with her; that the skin on our arms prickled as she saw the ‘ice all around’ and our hearts beat faster with hers as she glimpsed the ghost-ship. It is to Shaw’s credit that she uttered the immortal words ‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink’ without allowing the slightest whiff of cliche. This is a tricky, tempestuous tale, and Shaw pulled it off brilliantly.
As the Mariner’s tale comes to an end, he has paid his penance for shooting the albatross, for now. A weight is lifted from him and seems to attach itself to the Wedding Guest, who leaves ‘like one that hath been stunned, And is of sense forlorn’, and so Hay-Gordon stumbled off into the depths of the tunnel. As we were drawn into the poem from the very beginning and forced to assume the role of the Guest, so we also left burdened and haunted by what we had heard.