How it’s New York: Brooklyn Academy of Music, or BAM, is a mecca for hipsters and culture vultures. The venue presents some of
the best theatre from all over the world, as well as film and music.
How it’s Irish: Fiona Shaw, who stars in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” is from Cork.
Stephen Orel saw Fiona Shaw at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Shaw, whom we loved so much in Colm Tóibin’s “Testament of Mary” on Broadway, is starring in a short run of an adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s eerie poem. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, the production is part of the Next Wave Festival, and closes on Sunday, Dec. 22.
Most likely, ever person reading this blog has read, or at least knows something of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner;”yet equally likely is it that unless you have heard it come alive in the voice and movements of Fiona Shaw and her silent collaborator, dancer/mime Daniel Hay-Gordon, you have never truly experienced it.
Shaw, dressed all in black, starts in the pre-show by selecting members of the audience and having them model for the role either of the mariner or his forced audience, the “wedding guest,” by trying on one of two black hats, and asking them to pose, stooped, with a pole. The show begins when she selects the last such person, sits him in a corner, and begins telling the tale. That person, of course, turns out to be Hay-Gordon, a dancer who uses his lithe limbs and body to simulate first the famous albatross, then the ghostly corpses of the mariner’s dead crewmates, who pay the price for his affront to nature.
After Shaw’s narrator shoots – for no apparent reason, other than sport — the albatross whose presence had seemed to bless the ship, she cleverly used the pole, held behind her neck, to simulate the albatross hung round the mariner’s neck by his vengeful, albeit fickle, crewmates. The crew at first turn on the mariner, when the ship is becalmed, blaming him for their troubles; but then change their view, when the ship’s fortunes change. This seals their fate, as the poem’s unique marginal notes, added later by its author, explains: “But when the fog cleared off, they justify the same, and thus make themselves accomplices to the crime.” Those notes – not part of the reading – continue: “And the albatross begins to be avenged,” precisely at the point where the poem reaches its most famous stanza:
“Water, water, everywhere/And all the boards did shrink/Water, water, everywhere/Nor any drop to drink.”
But it is also precisely at this moment that the genius of Shaw’s telling shines most brightly.
Throughout, she finds the inner rhymes, and the telling rhythm, without ever veering into sing-song;and here, where it is most tempting, she reads dramatically, with a pause after the first “water” and a much longer pause after the second “water,” and then “everywhere!” as a wild exclamation.
Her ensuing description of the game of dice between the spectre-woman and Death is truly fearful. She and Hay-Gordon then depict the sudden death of the crew – each, in turn, fixing a death stare on the mariner, then falling dead – with brutal grace.
Convention and cliche, then, are nowhere to be found. Old fashioned dramatic reading, with minimalist sounds, effects and movement, are
supplied instead. The familiar passages –
“As idle as a painted ship/Upon a painted ocean”;
“Yes, slimy things did crawl with legs/Upon the slimy sea”;
“We were a ghastly crew”
– glow anew. At the end, one truly feels the mariner’s joy at the simple ability, restored after all his travails,
“to walk together to the kirk/With a goodly company.”
The audience – a very large crowd for a windy, snowy night in Brooklyn – lavished rapturous applause on the company. They had listened with rapt attention to the unamplified reading. One could sense that they knew they had experienced something rare in this age of electronic stimulation:
the power of the great actor to convey the meaning of the written word.