The telephone book, traditionally the benchmark for awkward material a great actor can nevertheless bring to life onstage, has a new challenger in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Coleridge’s 626-line poem about a seaman’s supernatural journey, written in 1798 and partly memorized by generations of schoolchildren thereafter, is studded with deathly obstacles to theatrical presentation.
A bigger violation would be a soporific tendency, and without being lowbrow it’s possible to notice that the ballad form is not intrinsically thrilling. With its singsong alternation of four- and three-stress lines, with its frequent rhyming and alliteration, stanzas like this have lulled many a babe (and parent) to sleep:
The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.
So you have to give Fiona Shaw and her director, Phyllida Lloyd, credit for bravery in turning the poem into a (very short) evening’s entertainment. That they intermittently come close to succeeding is a sign of their constant ingenuity. Lloyd gets more variety than you might think possible out of a simple set of wood planks and sailcloth (by Chloé Obolensky), a high-contrast, deep-shadow lighting design (by Jean Kalman and Mike Gunning), and especially a soundscape (by Mel Mercier) that’s subtle and murmurous. She works every variation possible on the few props; a wooden pole serves as cane, cross, mast, gun, albatross, and oar. Meanwhile, Shaw, making the most of her consonants and her alertness to the nuance of words, refreshes even the poem’s greatest hits: the “water water every where,” the “all things great and small,” the “sadder and wiser man” at the end. As always, she’s a deep pleasure to watch.
But if there are thrills to be had, they mostly come from an unexpected source: a dancer named Daniel Hay-Gordon who is brought into the proceedings somewhat coyly. (You are meant to think at first he’s a volunteer from the audience, though the shoes are a giveaway.) Sometimes portraying the wedding guest whom the mariner buttonholes, sometimes the mariner himself, sometimes the crew or the weather or the albatross (in a beautiful shadow trick) or, in the play’s most terrifying moment, a figure of death with its hideous rictus, he is both beautiful to watch in the abstract and privileged through choreography (by Kim Brandstrup) to bring something new and therefore revivifying to the story.
Elsewhere in these 45 minutes, you feel like you’re doing something healthy and prudent, like getting a booster shot. But in its best moments, spoken or danced, this Rime becomes a real yarn, twisting before you.
* * *
It takes Conor McPherson less than ten minutes to provide everything you need to enjoy the rest of his rip-roaring comic drama The Night Alive; it takes less than one to get you to care. When the lights come up, barely, on a Dublin hovel (“a fucking madhouse,” as one character puts it) you get a certain kind of information from the gross-out mess of it all; when the 50ish Tommy then enters, gently tending to the twentyish Aimee, whose face and sweater are covered in blood, you get another. From the conflict between the pieces of information — the crazy marginality and the bone-deep kindness — arises a question: What has happened to throw these people together in this place? And from that question the rest of the story naturally falls.
The magic of McPherson’s writing (I have especially loved the supernatural Shining City and the heartbreaking Port Authority) isn’t so much in the novelty of his characters; they could almost be archetypes. Nor is it in the clever working out of his often fatalistic plots. The magic is in the certainty and depth of his understanding of his materials. There’s no verbal smokescreen, no meta-theatrical frippery, like the kind some playwrights hide their vagueness behind. McPherson tells a solid, almost old-fashioned tale, if about fragile, ramshackle modern people. Tommy is an odd-jobs man (read: petty thief); Aimee is a prostitute abused by her psychopathic pimp of a boyfriend. Soon we meet Tommy’s Uncle Maurice, the furiously bereft widower who owns the house, and Tommy’s “associate,” Doc, a classic “eejit,” beloved of Irish literature. (His name, he tells Aimee, was shortened from Brian.) By the time these four are introduced, you know what you want for them, you feel it strongly, and you see what stands in the way.
What stands in the way is more than the boyfriend, who makes a horrible entrance at just the right moment. (The somewhat obscure title seems to refer to the wild spirit of destruction that emerges after dark.) Even without such outer demons, Tommy and the others would likely be trapped in the Chinese finger torture of their poverty and bad choices. Doc’s feeblemindedness, for instance, seems to be the result of sniffing glue; Tommy’s penury partly the result of a failed marriage. And while McPherson does not valorize these ne’er-do-wells, he takes their dreams and deficiencies seriously. That they must make do with third-rate imitations of rich people’s satisfactions — dog biscuits for snacks, nicked sneakers for gifts — does not make them ridiculous, or no more ridiculous than anyone else with posher trappings. McPherson seems to see them as the rest of society’s unacknowledged dark doubles: as absurdly connected to us as are Doc’s acquaintances, the twins Romulus and Dwayne, to each other.
Any condescension in performance or even design would sink this material; happily, Soutra Gilmour’s sets and costumes, while making the necessary points, are no more awful than they need to be. The hovel has a kind of wrecked Edwardian grandeur, and when Tommy and Aimee are meant to look good, they do. Similarly, the actors, under McPherson’s direction, are vigorous advocates for their characters’ dignity. (They’ve been together since June, when the production opened at London’s Donmar Warehouse.) This is especially an achievement for Michael McElhatton as Doc, who could easily have been a one-note joke; instead he is given the whole human scale of troubling and noble qualities. And Ciarán Hinds (who starred with Norton in McPherson’s The Seafarer on Broadway in 2007 and 2008) is monumental. His Tommy is a complete creation: a bear of a man, worn down by unresolvable worries, who nevertheless has the largeness of spirit to do what’s right nearly as often as not, and to dare to hope for the redemption of love. It must be said that Hinds is also a genius with a line like “You’re a fuckin’ turnip!”
A Dublin-born friend, perhaps sensitive to the unrelentingly squalid characters in recent Irish plays, complained to me that McPherson and his contemporary Martin McDonagh have not “moved the ball forward” from their great forebears O’Casey and Synge, “except for adding more cursing and schlock.” True, The Night Alive is hilariously vulgar, and filled with pop references. (Marvin Gaye is its tutelary spirit.) But O’Casey’s and Synge’s paycocks and playboys had communities to be kicked out of or rejoined as necessary; McDonagh and McPherson write about a more chaotic kind of marginality. This is not just because they are freed by the loosening of social constraints to provide a fuller realism but also because the mainstream itself is now so incoherent. Everything’s a jumble. It’s a telling shock to see Tommy, in some ways just this side of a caveman, talking to his ex-wife through a Bluetooth earpiece, that potent symbol of both connection and disconnection. In a world with only provisional loyalties, we are all, as Doc describes his work, freelance “by definition.”
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is at BAM’s Harvey Theater through December 22.
The Night Alive is at the Atlantic Theater Company through January 26.