Review: Rift Zone by Night Light Theatre

Night Light Theatre is a devising company and Rift Zone is their latest show, directed by Rich Rusk (Associate Director of Gecko), and based on the company’s experience during a trip to Iceland.

The set is the first thing that strikes you as you wait for the performance to begin, dominated by coloured light bulbs on pendants, some of which hang at different levels over the playing space, and some of which are tangled together to decorate a crude throne at the centre of the back wall. Music is playing, live, as you enter the space; strange, unearthly music which, as the lights go down, is swelled by three vocalists, trying-out sounds which, at first, present a cacophony of meaningless syllables, but which gradually come together to create harmony and the beginning of a narrative.  And this is a glimpse of the show to come.

Rift Zone is the strange odyssey of Alfa, an Icelandic girl who is pulled towards the Rift Zone – the place in Iceland where the continental tectonic plates meet – to encounter Bob, an American engineer who continues to be drawn back to the country in order to find and pursue her, and to make sense of their first, intangible meeting. The production blends Icelandic legend with the politics of ecology, and drifts, not always seamlessly, between the two, underscored throughout by live music.

Lizzie Franks, as Alfa, gives a strong and empathetic performance, drawing the audience with her on her character’s journey, and Jack Bentick as her brother, Olaf, is convincing at first although, as his desire for his adopted sister grows, his motivation becomes more confused. Finn Morrell as Bob doesn’t take the audience with him on the development of his character from lover of destiny to greedy betrayer, as he never really establishes himself as an heroic prince and our natural suspicion of him from the beginning pre-empts the final outcome. Dom Coyote, as the historic poet, Snorri, is unsubtle in his characterisation, which made me think of Terry Gilliam in his Python days, although most of the audience seemed to appreciate the character’s clowning and light-relief. For me, it was as a musician that he gave his best contribution to the piece. Phillipa Hogg, as the absent-minded mother and academic gives a consistent performance, but her character never really gels with the rest of the play.

The Lighting Design, which is uncredited in the programme, is impressive, making great use of the pendant lamps which pulsate with the action, and there are some nice physical set-pieces which contribute to the parallel worlds created and the ethereal nature of much of the play. There were also many references to Icelandic mythology, which were woven into the narrative in a way which made their relevance clear, but which weren’t over-explained to the audience, although those to whom they were unfamiliar may have missed some of the nuances.

The piece looked, and sounded beautiful, but it fell into the trap of many devised plays, where ideas are found and developed in the rehearsal room, of which the company become very fond, but which ultimately don’t contribute enough to the story to deserve to remain. As a result the piece was overly long and the first half too confused, although the story got stronger as it developed and there was a sense, at the end, that it had come full circle and that the blend of mythic and modern really worked. Still, it would have benefited hugely from some ruthless and objective cutting.

This is the second play I have seen at New Diorama recently which drew upon Scandinavian legend, the other being Where the White Stops, by Antler, and I cannot help but compare the two. Antler’s show, much simpler and with less artifice, conjured the spirit and feel of the mythology much more than this piece, which seemed confused in comparison, less sure of what it was, and too dependent on theatrical ‘magic’ than on a genuine compulsion to tell the story.  I saw it at the beginning of its run and I hope that Night Light have continued to develop the show as it has, at its heart, a good story and some beautiful and original ideas.  But, early-on, it felt more like a long and well-resourced work-in-progress than a complete play.  Hopefully, by the end of its three-week run, enough work will have been done to refine it into a finished piece.

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