By Maria Katsounaki
For an actress who has already tackled the challenge of playing Richard II on stage, interpreting an old sailor narrating the story of a haunted journey sounds like a fairly straightforward task. And what’s more, Shakespearean plays may run for hours, whereas “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), is less than an hour long.
For award-winning actress Fiona Shaw playing the old sailor was her own idea, as she told Kathimerini from her home in London ahead of her arrival to Greece to perform Coleridge’s poem today and tomorrow at the Little Theater of Ancient Epidaurus.
Shaw, 54, is a true star of the British theater, one whose stage appearances are invariably accompanied by rave reviews, awards and honorary distinctions, and who also enjoys a distinctive, albeit limited, presence on television and in films.
The Irish-born actress is best known for constantly inventing new creative challenges for herself: A heart-breaking Electra, a powerful Winnie (in Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” a production that went on stage at the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus in 2007), not to mention a delightful Aunt Petunia in cinema’s “Harry Potter” series.
For “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Shaw has teamed up with Phyllida Lloyd -- director of the films “Mamma Mia” and “The Iron Lady.”
In this production, Shaw will read the story of the old sailor who kills an albatross that saves his crew from an ice field, but does so at a terrible cost.
Is poetry therapeutic or a form of escapism in times of great social change and upheaval?
I don’t know; I think it depends on what the audience bring. If they come because they feel the need to escape, I don’t mind as long as they engage. The poetry of the “Ancient Mariner” is not addressing anything to do with the Greek economic situation. It is a poem about guilt; about the journey of the mind through guilt and reconciliation.
That’s its theme; it isn’t addressing anything else. But it is a theme that would go for anybody, whether they find themselves in economic turmoil or not. So it’s about the human soul and it is a particularly unique piece of writing because it’s written in a sort of child-like style but in fact it’s a very adult poem. It’s like a magic spell, which I actually think relates to some Greek tragedies.
Reading this poem both in Greek and English, I felt the voyage change from a pleasant and tranquil one to a dark and stormy affair.
You’re right. It could be a very interesting metaphor for a person’s journey through suffering but as with the Mariner, it will pass. He does finally get home.
If we were passengers on a haunted voyage, and if the albatross’s death is symbolic, what would we kill in order to find ourselves?
You see! You have to ask yourselves that. We have already killed modesty.
Does your instinct tell you which projects, which roles to take on?
Yes. I learned this poem last year. I was in America and I was performing in a television series called “True Blood.” Every day I went running and as I ran I learnt the poem. Then I thought I would make a small piece out of it.
While in the process of making a small piece out of it, my choreographer friend offered to do a dance for it, another friend of mine said she would direct it and another said he would light it, so it suddenly became worthy of being seen by more than just five people. In a way we’re testing it out in Greece and I’m very glad that it’s being shown at the small Epidaurus theater and not the big one.
Do you think it’s an appropriate venue for the atmosphere of the piece?
Yes because it’s a small piece and not as big as “Happy Days,” and it’ll be viewed within a timeframe that’s intense enough for people to enjoy it.
Is it about one hour long?
Perhaps; less even.
How are you going to perform it? As a poem? Will you be alone on stage?
No, I will have a dancer with me called Daniel Hay-Gordon and he responds. There are two characters in the poem and there is also a narrator as well as peripheral characters that come into the poem, so it’s a very difficult thing to achieve.
Do you think that poetry requires a special audience? And what was the public’s reaction to “Peace Camp” (an installation of 500 illuminated stages on which renowned actors read poetry that toured the British isles)?
I don’t think it requires a special audience. I think it’s our job to make it entirely accessible and I think that coming to see this poem is a delightful thing. It’s not hard or intellectual; its beautiful. You will be taken on a journey. In relation to “Peace Camp,” there has been a phenomenal reaction. I’ve recently been to places like Northumberland and Northern Ireland, and there have been beautiful scenes set as places for people to contemplate and talk to each other in reflecting upon the poem’s powerful words.
What does the poem of the Ancient Mariner symbolize in this day and age?
I don’t believe that it’s a question that I should answer, because that’s why you go to the theater, to ask yourself the question. I was brought up in Ireland and so for me I recognize that it symbolizes sin and the sin of carelessness, but I really wouldn’t want anyone to take my view of it as specific. It’s absolutely written as a story one can explore and discover things from.
Can you comment on the following verse of the poem: “The man hath penance done and penance more will do.” Is penance a virtue?
Penance is not a virtue; it’s the payment you recognize that you’re giving and it must hurt the giver. Penance is pain that you pay for your mistakes. I don’t know if this is in the Greek Orthodox culture or whether it’s just in Northern European culture, but it’s very popular in Ireland.
How about on the verse: “A sadder and wiser man rose in the morning.” Does this express hope?
I don’t know. It’s as if the Mariner is cured but somehow he has infected the wedding guests.
Poetry plays an integral part in your work. How do you bring it into a world that is becoming increasingly cynical?
The reason why I like poetry is that I can make it sound modern. If it stays too high you can’t do that, so the job is to meet the cynics. But I don’t think people are cynical toward poetry; they just live in a world where everything is very immediate and poetry does have an intensity that allows for you to think beyond that. If you can make the poetry immediate, then it should cut through a style.
Could “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” be described as a contemporary Odyssey?
I think you can certainly see it as an Odyssey. I hope that it will catch your mind when you watch it and that you will be taken into your mind. It’s very simple what we do -- there’s just me and the dancer and a poem that is like a child’s poem so I hope it works, but I think it’s well written enough so that it could work. I also hope it’ll take each person on a delightful journey and that they will see themselves in it.
The Greece you are visiting now is very different to the country you visited in 2007. Do you believe theater can be a haven from political and social upheaval?
I’m not sure that theater can save Greece but it is a wonderful fact that the Greek audience keeps going to the theater because they understand that there is pleasure and life beyond the economic.
Are you an optimist?
I’m very optimistic about people but not about governments.
And systems in general?
Well we’ve been let down by every system: the church, the banks, the press, and I think the only systems that haven’t let us down are the arts.
How has the art world responded to the global crisis?
No artist properly indicated that there was a tragedy about to occur. I think the arts world did not respond to the “boom.” It didn’t give any indication and normally art is ahead of the game. But now I’m very aware of the situation we’re in, but I’m not sure whether your instinct is informed subliminally but it feels as if it is. I think the suffering of people now is absolutely medieval: We have the masters who have stolen from the poor and the poor who are being asked to pay. It’s quite obvious what’s wrong and it’s been wrong for a long time because it doesn’t allow for every person to live a decent life.
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” will be staged at the Ancient Epidaurus’s Little Theater on August 3 and 4. The production, in English with Greek surtitles, is part of this year’s Greek Festival. Shows start at 9.30 p.m. For more information, go to www.greekfestival.gr.