Wednesday, 17 March 2021

REVIEW: DREAM, inspired by A Midsummer Night's Dream, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

On the 1-year anniversary of Theatres being closed due to Covid, the RSC invites you to explore the virtual world of the forest in which Titania’s fairy train are running wild in a thirty-minute immersive experience. It promises to be magical, interactive and an exciting glimpse into the future of live theatre. However, it is also caveated that it is Research and Development, a digital experiment to see what is possible. There are two ways of engaging with the experience, a free observer or a £10 Audience Plus player who can drop fireflies into the Forest for the live actors to interact with. Although I tried to interact with the action the whole experience felt like watching a fuzzy cartoon film that promised more than it delivered.

To create the virtual world the RSC has worked with a gaming technology platform to create software that translates the movement of live actors in a Portsmouth Guildhall based studio (a 7 metres cube called the Volume) into animated characters in a sketchily drawn forest. In fact, the sequences where we see both the actors in their special suits playing out their movements in the studio as well as the animated video are the most interesting and I would have preferred seeing them throughout. Without seeing them you might just as well be watching a pre-recorded version of the experience. The whole essence of a live experience is feeling and seeing that it is live and without that sense, the experience is dulled and less engaging.

Equally the thirty-minute “adventure” has limited narrative and although it uses characters & lines from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as inspiration from some of the description he uses, there is no discernible story to Puck’s adventure. Puck arrives looking less like an impish fairy and more like a stone skeleton and explores the setting. A storm breaks and damages the forest and then (spoiler alert) the forest is regrown. In the course of this tour Puck meets Moth (an animated pile of leaves), Pease bottom (a figure made of branches), Cobweb (an eyeball) and Mustard Seed (a face made of twigs). These magical woodland nymphs from Shakespeare’s play are turned into rather dull animated forest debris. 

The preshow promises that the interactivity would be accompanied by music from the Philharmonic Orchestra that rises and falls with the action but don’t expect the magic of Fantasia with music and animation integrated and enhancing each other. We can’t tell whether the music is varied by the action and the musical inserts felt infrequent rather than underscoring the whole experience in the way the music does so well in the Barn’s online version of The Picture of Dorian Grey.

I have no doubt it is exciting being in the Portsmouth studio especially in the knowledge that over 7500 devises are connecting to the performance all around the world. Em Williams as Puck conveys that sense of excitement in her introduction before the show starts but her personality and joy is lost in the disjointed stone person she becomes. Her supporting cast who she meets in the forest or who assist in the choreography have little chance to create any distinctive voice in the story.

Originally conceived as a live immersive experience at Stratford-upon-Avon the Dream has been adapted over the last 12 months as an online experience and has lost something in the process. Yes, it is a demonstration of the technology and where it is has reached at present and of course, in time it will get better and be part of future events, but it also shows the current limitations (goodness knows what it has cost to get this far). If you are a gamer used to the multi-player world then you will see this experience as substandard. If you are a theatre-goer desperately seeking a substitute for the live production, you will find it inadequate. If you want to try something new & different that gives a glimpse of the future, then try the free stream but go in the knowledge that this is still R&D, an experiment and with all experiments, you can learn more from what does not work than you can from what does. It will be interesting to see and hear what emerges from this bold experiment.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★

Seat: online until 20th March | Price: Audience Plus £10, otherwise free

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