What do you do if you’re rehearsing a live performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when suddenly a deadly global pandemic derails your plans? This is the highly unusual and unwelcome scenario that the Royal Shakespeare Company was faced with last year, as well as the wider question of what a virus that thrives on human interaction means for the future of live performance. It’s this consideration that led to last night’s production, which was unique, engaging and really rather beautiful.
Dream is inspired by, rather than an adaptation of, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and is an immersive online experience that uses the technology we see in online gaming to create a virtual world that can be inhabited by both actors and audience. After waiting in the interactive lobby which acts as a kind of magical programme, we’re invited into the production where we’re met by Puck (EM Williams), who greets us in full CGI suit and leads us through to the motion capture studio. In a very Avatar-like move, Puck then dons a virtual reality headset and transports us to the forest. The forest is mesmerising and calming, with a perfectly balanced musical score provided by the Philharmonia Orchestra but with atmospheric attention to background detail such as a trickling brook and Puck’s footsteps across the twigs and dry leaves of the forest floor – all in real time and reacting to the surroundings as characters move. As an audience member, the experience is incredibly immersive – not only are you in the forest with Puck and moving alongside, but there is also an interactive element that helps you guide the journey through the forest. All the characters we meet on the way are of course actors back in the motion capture studio, and at one point we’re brought back to see this ‘in action’. I found this really powerful as it was a chance to see how the beautiful dancing and physical theatre which appears so fluid in the virtual world is created in real life by the talented cast.
The team behind Dream stress that the production should be viewed as a research and development project which looks to answer the question of how to create a connection and feeling of togetherness in the pandemic. It’s an exciting prospect for the future of theatre but not something that would look to take the place of live performance; rather something that has the potential to enhance the experience for the audience. For me, Dream was an absorbing and fascinating experience, and I look forward to seeing how the application of this kind of technology could be used in other ways as we hope to return to post-pandemic life.
17th March 2021