The approach to the Old Vic Tunnels is not exactly glamorous. A dark, pungent-smelling underpass behind London’s Waterloo Station leads to a warren of chill, dank tunnels. Yet it suits this staging of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: already, before you take your seat, your senses are pricked. And this is a poetry recital with a difference: actor Fiona Shaw roams the auditorium before the show, seeking out an accomplice with whom to deliver Coleridge’s epic 1798 ballad – searching, like the ancient mariner in the poem, for an audience for her hair-raising story. She finds one in the dancer Daniel Hay-Gordon, who joins her onstage. Between them they draw you, like the wedding guest before you, into the desperate tale of the sailor who shoots an albatross and must undergo an awful penance.
Shaw is a compelling performer and she buttonholes your attention with her evident relish for the text. Clad in androgynous nautical gear – a navy jumper and dark trousers – she makes a restless presence, roaming the atmospheric vaulted space as if driven by her tale, savouring the regular rhythm of the poem and filling the chilly air with Coleridge’s vivid, disturbing images. It’s a riveting, virtuoso performance (directed by Phyllida Lloyd), but Shaw also brings an element of ironic distance, switching between narrator and protagonist.
She’s joined by Hay-Gordon, a silent, supple companion whom she moulds into the figures she needs to help tell the story. First he is the mariner, stooped and skinny; then the albatross; later the dying sailors with their cracked tongues and glittering eyes. Sometimes the movement, choreographed by Kim Brandstrup, enhances the telling, sometimes it distracts – likewise Mel Mercier’s soundtrack. Too much embellishment feels too fussy and focuses the attention on the performance rather than the story.
It’s when it is at its simplest that the show is at its eeriest and most powerful: when it deploys just a couple of props and the human voice to bring Coleridge’s poem alive. It’s a sharing of the story that we relish – an act central to the poem, in which the listener plays his part in the cathartic experience. But listening is a heavy burden too: this staging ends subtly with Shaw leaning idly, almost mischievously, against a wall, while Hay-Gordon trudges forlornly into the depths of the building. Be it truth or fiction, he is haunted by the hellish tale he must now carry with him.