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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Rime—Casting Nets and Spells

by Stan Schwartz

 Daniel Hay-Gordon and Fiona Shaw. Photo: Robert Hubert Smith
“I’ve found in the last 20 years of performing poems, audiences still love the direct connection of the unmediated human voice. I’m not sure if anything actually will ever match that as being the primary theatrical experience.”

The speaker is famed Irish actor/director Fiona Shaw, and although her voice was indeed mediated by the trans-Atlantic phone system, it still came through loud, clear, and with charm in a recent conversation from London where she was busy directing Benjamin Britten’s opera The Rape of Lucretia. True, Shaw has recently been directing opera, but she is still mostly known as the superb film and stage actor who, in addition to playing in classical theater (BAM audiences will recall her in the 2011 John Gabriel Borkman), has also made a side business of performing epic poems on stage. In 1996, Shaw wowed New Yorkers with her mesmerizing interpretation of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, and she returns to the BAM Harvey December 10—22 with her performance of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s classic 18th-century poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The production is directed by Phyllida Lloyd.

Coleridge’s poem concerns the tale of the titular and tortured mariner who kills an albatross which has guided his ship lost at sea, and the strange, supernatural events which ensue as a result: Death claims his entire crew but the mariner is condemned to continue living a life of haunted guilt, hence the proverbial albatross around his neck. The poem features a curious framework in which the mariner has stopped a guest on the way to a wedding and has forced him to listen to his tale. But that is only one of the poem’s many oddities, all open to multiple interpretations. One thing is indisputable however, and that is the poem’s visceral and hallucinatory qualities, rendering it ripe for theatrical adaptation. And there’s no doubt that Coleridge’s rhythms of repeated rhymes give the work an incantatory quality.


 Fiona Shaw and Daniel Hay-Gordon. Photo: Robert Hubert Smith

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Shaw first started learning Mariner a few years back, while she was working on season four of HBO’s True Blood. Her character, Marnie, a possessed witch, was given to all manner of bizarre spell-chanting. Magic spells aside, a fundamental and far more down-to-earth component of the project’s genesis was the actor’s reunion with an old friend, the director Phyllida Lloyd, who, as Shaw related it, “happened to have had a private performance of something in her kitchen. I thought that this little poem would be a good thing to perform in her kitchen just amongst friends… This sort of domestic performance was the sort of thing we both had been brought up on. And for our pleasure, we might return to this sort of thing.”

Over time, the production grew in complexity and scope. Coleridge’s stylized rhythms suggested movement, so choreographer and mutual friend Kim Brandstrup came on board, bringing in Daniel Hay-Gordon to dance in counterpoint to Shaw’s performance. By the time the piece was performed at the Epidaurus Festival in Greece in August of 2012 in a smallish amphitheater, it also boasted an evocative soundscape by sound designer Mel Mercier and equally atmospheric lighting by Jean Kalman. “So quickly this kitchen production turned into a rather huge production!” Shaw said.

Clearly, performing a poem poses technical challenges very different from acting in a traditional play with scenes, dialogue, and other actors on stage with you. “It’s like standing in front of a cliff,” Shaw explained. “You just climb this vertical cliff of language and when it’s good language there’s always a place for your foot or your hand. And you just climb up.” The actor speaks from experience: In addition to The Waste Land, in 2008, audiences marveled as Shaw effortlessly scaled the giddy heights—while buried to her neck in earth, no less—of Beckett’s Happy Days, at BAM. True, it’s not a poem, but still, a monologue of gigantic proportions, and audiences were spellbound. Now, Shaw herself intones the S-word when describing Mariner: When you hear it, it has a spell in it. It’s a simple poem but it has strange rhythms that catch the back of your mind. So it’s a real trip.”

Stan Schwartz, a freelance arts journalist with a particular interest in European film and theater, has written in New York and Sweden.

Reprinted from Nov 2013 BAMbill.

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