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The Shaw Must Go On

Along with her directorial debut at the Met this month, stage legend Fiona Shaw brings a 200-year-old poem to life in Brooklyn

You might know Fiona Shaw from her role as the poisonous Aunt Petunia in the Harry Potter films or her turn as a power-hungry witch on HBO’s True Blood, but it’s the Irish-born actress’ stage work—whether she’s in a starring role or working as a director; she does both with impressive constancy—that’s garnered the most acclaim.

This week Shaw, who directed the production of Eugene Onegin currently at the Metropolitan Opera, will bring The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The dramatic take on the Samuel Coleridge poem—which features Shaw and the dancer Daniel Hay Gordon—is the U.S. premiere of the work, which has been performed in Greece and will next make its way to France. DuJour spoke to Shaw early one morning about poetry, performance and how True Blood made this production possible.

What inspired you to take this poem, which follows a sailor at the end of his journey as he meets a man heading toward a wedding, and bring it to the stage?

These things often come toward you. They start off as these little ideas. I learned the poem a couple of years ago and the play came out of a conversation with my dear friend [director] Phyllida Lloyd. We were talking about the homespun ideas of how to make things nearer the theater of our childhood and not the theater we both participate in and love. We thought that we might perform it in someone’s kitchen, but very quickly we got invited to Little Theater of Ancient Epidaurus in Greece and we expanded it to include this wonderful dancer, Daniel Hay Gordon.

What initially sparked your interest in this 200-year-old poem?

I’m interested in poems and scenes. This has a big scene; it’s a big story. I’m very interested in using childish rhyme to investigate cultures. And then when you get interested in something like this, you can’t help but get more interested.

Does doing something like this stretch different muscles for you than making a movie or doing a traditional play?

It’s a different thing completely. In opera, the music is defined by the conductor and the orchestra, but in a poem there’s a very tight rhythm but it’s up to the performer to play against or with that rhythm. In this poem, it’s very strict and you have to play with it very carefully. We’re really riding the various rhythms of the nightmare journey this person goes on. It’s certainly a very demanding thing for a performer.

Why have a dancer involved?

There’s no purpose. We actually tried it with a lot of dancers for a while. A lot of great poems are about two people; I think great poems are often dialogues and this has two very distinct characters, so it’s good that there are two people on the stage to play with those identities. With a dancer, it allows the dreamlike nature of the poem to take off. We actually rehearsed huge amounts of dancers, but found that we’d rather be pared down.

This poem was first published in 1798. What about it do you think resonates today?

Coleridge, in 1798, was at the peak of his powers—his drug-fueled mind and his imagination were working in perfection. After that he sort of disintegrated. You are getting a feast of a man’s imagination at its best. I think imagination is timeless and Coleridge’s is easy to take hold of.

At the same time you’re working on your directorial debut at the Met.

I was stepping in for my friend Deborah Warner at the Met. I have mounted the opera but I wasn’t intending to do it. I have just mounted an opera myself, The Rape of Lucretia, which I directed in London. That was my opera. We’d been working on Mariner for years as a group, so the ideas are ongoing but aren’t particularly connected to opera. The only real influence was my working every day.

Are there other epic poems you think would benefit from being staged?

I’m sure there are! The thing that happens is that a poem finds you. You know, I didn’t go out looking for epic poems, I was doing the series True Blood in L.A. and I thought when I went running in the morning it would be nice to learn a poem for my own entertainment. I settled upon Ancient Mariner to see if I even liked it. I’m sure someone could adapt Beowulf, but, at the moment, I don’t need to do that.

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” opens at the Brooklyn Academy of Music December 10 and shows until December 22, 2013. Click here for showtimes and more info.