We gather on the observation terrace of Alexandra Palace in the shadow of its vast transmission tower. A plaque declares that it is the site of the first ever live television broadcast. London sprawls before us, impossibly beautiful in the dwindling light. From here we are conveyed down into the basement. We have stumbled onto a place forgotten by time, with rubble underfoot, bare bricks and inexplicably, faint jazz beckoning us deeper. This is the disorientating and seductive world of RIFT’S A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
With Nicholas Hytner’s production of this popular comedy only ending its run at the end of August, it is bold to stage another so soon. But this immersive production immediately establishes itself as unique.
The hallway leads into a jazz bar. Francis Flute (Stanton Plummer-Cambridge) erupts through the crowd: “Nearly ready!” he proclaims seizing a laughing woman and ushering her back through the room. This close proximity with the audience is thrilling throughout.
There is respect for the significance of our venue. The piece reimagines that first television broadcast in the 1930’s as capturing the wedding of Theseus (Mike Adams) and Hippolyta (Lowri James, also playing Titania and Oberon). Egeus (Rob Myles, also playing Puck), is Hermia’s agent rather than her father transforming the salacious gossip of court and the patriarchal family structure into a comment on the prying and restrictive culture surrounding female performers. After two highly anticipated royal weddings and #MeToo, these references are pertinent and rousing.
We are slickly led from room to room. Raw industrial materials spill from every corner: bricks, pipes, and we even sit on glowing upturned buckets that resemble mushrooms sprung up from the forest floor.
The cast are unanimously excellent dominating the performance space with electrifying chemistry and spot-on characterisations. The Mechanicals are excellent comedic relief with a roguish camaraderie; particularly notable are Flute’s portrayal of Thisbe and Bottom (Henry Maynard) who embodies the self-important weaver, at one point bellowing his prologue as Pyramus into my delighted face.
Hermia (Dewi Saginson) is single-minded and outspoken, perfectly complementing the mild, affectionate Lyssander (Ben Teare). Helena (Phoebe Naughton) is frantic and endearing in her unrequited pursuit of Demetrius (Sam Ducane) who could have just sauntered out of an Oxford college. The four lovers are portrayed as foolhardy but ultimately sympathetic teenagers. Scenes of the couples frantically kissing — all flailing limbs and bashing chins — give me flashbacks of my own clumsy teenage attempts at romance.
The most captivating portion of the piece is within the fairy realm. We sit in a large hall where shadowy stone arches decorate the walls. Through them characters pass unseen to sneak upon unsuspecting characters. The labyrinth of the mystical forest is evoked gorgeously.
Where social hierarchy dominates the human world, the fairies are governed by virile eroticism. The Mechanicals become attendants of Titania and Oberon. They prowl between us, bare skin glistening with sweat. Puck sprints the length of the room in frenzy, cruelly amused at his own meddling.
A final stunning choice made is that the ‘herb’ used to enchant various characters, is a handheld video camera with a pink ring light. As each character succumbs to magic, their face appears on a screen in a trance-like state: this allegory for the illusionary “magic” of a camera is exceptionally intelligent.
It is a rare treat that I can use the word phantasmagorical in adult life and I do so about this production with joy. Though it would benefit from an interval, the piece is sexually charged, poignant and hilarious, ending with Puck submerging us into darkness as though drifting into peaceful sleep after fantastical dreams.
RIFT present Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing Alexandra Palace until 28 September. For more information and tickets, see the Alexandra Palace website.