IoS theatre review: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Old Vic Tunnels, London
So Great a Crime, Finborough, London
Fiesco, New Diorama, London

Fiona Shaw leads her audience a surprisingly merry dance to Coleridge's bleak epic poem

The dead sailors stood on the deck and fixed him with a baleful stare. They were a ghoulish crew, fit for a "charnel-dungeon". So says the old seafarer as – haunted by guilt and superstition – he relates how he doomed all aboard the vessel when he killed an innocent albatross that hovered overhead.

If you're looking to stage Coleridge's narrative poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the Old Vic Tunnels are certainly going to enhance its sepulchral allusions. A vast brick catacomb stretches into the distance as Fiona Shaw (in navy jumper and plimsolls) paces to and fro, reciting the ballad. She is accompanied by a silent, sometimes whirling, sometimes writhing dancer (Daniel Hay-Gordon, choreographed by Kim Brandstrup). Their shadows loom large on the sidewalls, caught in circular spotlights like full moons.

What's impressive is how Phyllida Lloyd's production invigorates The Rime. This 144-stanza saga about a purgatorial voyage through frozen seas and drought-stricken delirium can lapse at points, on the page. Amid mesmerising passages are couplets that veer close to doggerel, scattered with folksy archaisms. (The poet himself, unsatisfied, kept tinkering after mixed reviews in 1798.)

Shaw, however, manages to conceal such flaws, delivering Coleridge's verses with a gusto that feels natural, at once vibrant and relaxed. At the dark centre of the poem, she portrays the ancient mariner reliving the trip's Gothic horrors with startling intensity, red-eyed with grief. Occasionally, she finds veins of humour too, notably near the close, alleviating what might otherwise have come over as an obtrusively Christian ending –when the mariner begs to be shriven by a hermit. These days, the moral has acquired an environmental tinge: "He prayeth well, who loveth well/ Both man and bird and beast."

Here and there, the actor-dancer double act is slightly awkward, but more often Shaw and Hay-Gordon's fluid identities keep you on your toes. They not only role-switch as the storyteller and his unwillingly hooked auditor (waylaid en route to a wedding), they also play each others' tortured souls or comforting thoughts expressionistically. A simple wooden staff serves as the albatross, the symbolic burden of guilt. It is yoked under Hay-Gordon's arms like the bar of a crucifix as, Pietà-style, he lies felled in Shaw's lap. Let's hope this production returns for a longer run soon.

"How can history judge fairly?" asks Vikram de Saram, a friend of the accused, in So Great a Crime, a new biodrama about Major General Hector MacDonald. A British war hero, knighted by Queen Victoria, his celebrity turned to notoriety in 1903 when he was accused of luring young boys into sexual relations. He shot himself en route to the court-martial in colonial Ceylon.

The case, inevitably, has topical reverberations, given the Jimmy Savile scandal, the peer wrongly accused of child abuse, and Operation Yewtree.

We will never know the truth, concludes De Saram. Yet the overriding impression is that writer-director David Gooderson is presenting the case for the defence. He shows us the snobbish English Establishment, galled by the low-born Scot, conducting a smear campaign and bribing local boys to denounce him. As I understand it, opinion is still divided among historians as to whether or not that happened.

So Great a Crime would be more intriguing if the audience were left in more doubt and if Stuart McGugan's stolid MacDonald had some moments of ambivalence, rather than seeming almost unquestionably decent.

A framing device, whereby troopers escorting the disgraced man's coffin on a train to Scotland start acting out his life, doesn't much help. It barely hangs together, the soldiers' individual views on MacDonald's reputation not even tallying with the roles they assume in his story. All in all, this ain't so great a play.

The rape of a woman is what sparks a revolution in Fiesco. This rarely aired political drama, penned by Friedrich Schiller in 1782, is set in 16th-century Genoa, where a delinquent prince and tyrant in the making, Gianettino, brutally deflowers the daughter of an avid republican. A clutch of senators then conspire to overthrow Gianettino, who's a murderous schemer to boot.

They want eloquent Count Fiesco on side, but can they trust him? He appears to have become a debauched playboy himself. Moreover, if he leads the putsch, might he turn megalomaniac?

One cannot but admire Schiller's ambition, but rife with plots and counterplots, Fiesco's storyline involves more twists than a cat's cradle and too many nods to Shakespeare.

I take my hat off to the New Diorama's resident company, the Faction, for its courage in tackling this piece in rep. On a bare, black stage and a tiny budget, it gets a modern-dress production with crowds dancing then rioting in slow-motion. But there's no sharp sociopolitical tallying of past and present by director Mark Leipacher. The acting lacks psychological subtlety, generally just upping the volume to impart urgency. Let's hope someone will realise this play's full potential soon.

'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' (020-7922 2922) today only; 'So Great a Crime' (0844 847 1652) to 22 Jan; 'Fiesco' (020-7383 9034) to 23 Feb

Critic's Choice

In the Republic of Happiness, Martin Crimp's satirico-absurdist vision of dysfunctional families and cults, is darkly gripping. It's at London's Royal Court (to 19 Jan). Meanwhile,White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is a radically experimental piece about Iran, performed by someone different every night. On Saturday 19 January it'll be Ken Loach on stage at the Old Vic Studio in Bristol.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015