The albatross — as featured in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner — is one of the most iconic metaphors in literature, symbolizing guilt, suffering, and pretty much anything else you want it to. Which makes it especially odd that Phyllida Lloyd’s new stage adaptation at BAM, starring Fiona Shaw, delivers the tale in such an insistently literal manner, turning what might have been an evocative solo performance into a plodding pantomime.
The Rime relates the saga of an ill-fated excursion in which the titular mariner makes a fatal misjudgment, shooting a wild albatross, whose spirit curses the crew. The wind dies down, stranding the ship, and the travelers expire of thirst. After confrontations with angry sailors, then dead sailors, then a ghost ship, the mariner washes up on shore, surviving to tell his tale.
Shaw, presiding in front of a massive white sail, recites Coleridge’s haunting lines with vivid clarity. But she’s stymied by her stage partner, a dancer who pantomimes scenes and makes shadow puppets on the sail (“Water, water, every where” inspires open-mouthed gasping; when the sailors die, he becomes a staring corpse). Apparently afraid to trust the text, Lloyd illustrates it furiously, a heavy-handedness that saddles the piece with (dare I say it?) an albatross of its own.