Dream is not A Midsummer Night’s Dream, nor is it a full play in its own right. Rather, Dream is an experiment that traverses along the fringes of technological advancement to provide a glimpse into the potential future of theatre performances. Two years in the making, this Royal Shakespeare Company production presents a welcome crossover between digital technology, computer-generated imagery, music performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra, and verse from the Bard of English literature. This production boasts experimentation, risk, and newness, in order to create a cerebral, immersive and interactive experience, at home.
Before audience members can watch Dream they must quickly navigate the Dream lobby. In the lobby, audience members are forewarned about their need to participate in the show, informed of casting information, and given tips for achieving the fullest experience: wear headphones; make sure your refreshments are ready; and, dim the lights. Once past the lobby, we are met back-stage at the Portsmouth Guildhall by Puck (Em Williams), who is dressed in a strange body suit. This suit permits Puck to be transformed into a motion-captured character capable of wandering through a computer-generated forest. The forest, Puck, and the accompanying cast (Mustardseed, Moth, Peaseblossom, and Cobweb) are all inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. However, this is a Shakespeare inspired performance unlike any that have previously been produced. While there is no shortage of A Midsummer Night’s Dream stage productions or film adaptations already in existence, the experience of Dream, which is immersed in virtual reality, interactive and enjoyed from the comfort of your own home, is refreshingly original.
At first, the transition into the computer-generated world can be quite challenging—Puck becomes a walking collection of rocks assembled upon one another, and the trees and bushes of the forest sway like they might in a video game. Dancing through the forest, Puck first meets Moth. Together they fly onto the top of a tree where Puck declares her desire to cause some mischief. What quickly ensues is a storm of nightmarish proportions. We are flung around the woods with Puck, shuttled between different seasons of weather and characters, until a devastatingly operatic crescendo climaxes in silence, and signals that night is over. There is an immediate and obvious parable to be drawn between the storm and the implications of climate change. Though, more subtly, there is also something revealing about the conditions of lockdown and the pandemic that transpires in the nightmarish conditions of the night. Considering the circumstances of the play’s production (each actor in the Portsmouth Guildhall is recorded still wearing a face mask), a parallel is formed between the sudden arrival of a harrowing storm, its unwelcoming nature and the unknown duration of its hazardous conditions, and the feeling of dread that accompanied the sudden arrival of a global virus. But, as the conclusion of Dream reassuringly reminds us, the storm will pass, morning will come, and things will begin to blossom again.
The true feat of Dream lies in the conditions of its production. Though the plot is a little scant and the verse is reduced to several lines for each character, the overall experience of the show is novel enough to redeem it. At one moment in particular, we are removed from the computer-generated forest to witness the meticulous care and group effort required to allow Puck to move around the stage in real life, as well as in the virtual forest. Dream hints at the potential for future theatre performances. It is an early nod towards the possibilities of combining classical works of literature with technological advancements, while maintaining audience participation. For now though, dreams, nightmares, literature, and music must all combine to create this dizzying (virtual) reality.
Dream is available to watch for free until 30 September.
Words by Jack Rondeau.
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