The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at the Old Vic Tunnels
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in the Old Vic Tunnels begins without warning: Fiona Shaw’s pre-show antics playing with one audience member after another quietly becomes the thing we’ve all come to see. By the time we figure out what’s happening, he’s there, materialised on the stage from nowhere, this ancient mariner from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s fantasies, embodied in Daniel Hay-Gordon’s malleable, elastic form. In this production, presented by Claire Béjanin and Taylor Thomson in association with the Young Vic and The Old Vic Tunnels, both Shaw and Hay-Gordon vacillate between the various characters in Coleridge’s epic narrative poem.
As usual, the atmosphere of the tunnels has done half the work, conjuring a creaking Victorian antiquity where ghosts and antediluvian wedding guests can manifest with ease. Chloe Obolensky’s spartan design has helped nudge things along, having almost subliminally transported us via a vast subterranean harbour (a hundred tonnes of water glisten silently in the cavernous antechamber before the theatre itself). Inside the space a vast sail dominates a vista of tunnels that stretch seemingly into infinity.
Bereft of much else save for some crates and coiled rope, the space is made pregnant by Shaw’s performance, as vocal as it is physical. Now grating, now weary, now dusty and cracked, now lusty, she flits from stanza to stanza, taking us on the fateful journey aided by Hay-Gordon’s expressive movement, mute canvas for Shaw’s conjurings.
This show, despite clocking in at under an hour, is a big ask for the theatre-goer of the Facebook generation. There are no flashy special effects, rotating sets, or smoke and mirrors to distract (though there is some masterful lighting design by Jean Kalman and Mike Gunning). But for the patient lover of words and rich images, and of the presence and urgency of live performance, Shaw and Hay-Gordon’s powerful rendering offers deep, resonating satisfaction and breathes life into the work anew to leave us wandering quietly, less certain of ourselves and of the world we, blinking, exit into once more.
Photos: Richard Hubert Smith