Dream Cobweb

Theatre Review: 'Dream', the Royal Shakespeare Company

Image credit: Marshmallow Laser Feast/Paul Mumford.

The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has boldly pushed the boat out with a virtual production inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The results are mixed, but this experimental production is unquestionably worth your 50 minutes of time and £0 ticket.

It is by now a matter of mere months until British theatres can reopen with full audiences and everything else that is by necessity missing from stultifying pandemic-era theatre. Most theatre companies would be within their rights to sit tight until it’s time for curtains.

Under these circumstances, the RSC deserves praise for having the confidence to offer remote audiences something genuinely new and different. 'Dream' is not diminished by the distance between audience and performer – as is the case in Zoom theatre, which is never better than the real thing – this distance is used as an asset.

'Dream', which was created with arts collective Marshmallow Laser Feast, was originally intended as a more conventional live performance this spring. With large theatres forced to close their doors towards the end of 2020 after a brief reopening for reduced audiences, however, the RSC went ahead and delivered it online.

The 50-minute production is staged in a virtual forest inhabited by faerie avatars controlled by live performers in motion-caption suits, which is an appropriate nod to the theme of transformation in 'Midsummer'. They are accompanied by a simple but pretty score generated in response to their hand movements and, later on, the luscious swell of the Philharmonia Orchestra in its final recording session before lockdown.

'Dream' is not 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream', but it is “created from the DNA of the play”. It hangs on a thin narrative involving the trickster faerie Puck (EM Williams) moving through the forest, meeting its other denizens, and experiencing a storm.

Moth and Puck in Dream

Marshmallow Laser Feast/Paul Mumford

Image credit: Marshmallow Laser Feast/Paul Mumford.

The flimsiness of the narrative is irrelevant, however, given that 'Dream' is 80 per cent visual appeal. The magical forest and its inhabitants are rendered in real-time using Epic’s Unreal Engine, and I’m relieved to say it looks good; the graphics are competitive with the current generation of video games. The design for the faeries is creative (Puck is a sprite made of floating stones, Cobweb is a giant eyeball surrounded by spiderwebs, Moth is a cloud of moths in the shape of a… moth) and the metamorphosing avatars are charming enough to be worth the trade off that comes from stripping these characters of faces, hence facial expressions, and sometimes of human form factor altogether.

The graphics and movement are accompanied by lines of dialogue – some spoken live, some pre-recorded by none other than Nick Cave – and the dialogue serves a similar semi-narrative purpose to the musical accompaniment. It is tempting to compare this to a digital dance performance rather than a play.

Audiences log in from home and can pay to interact with the performance. These interactions – moving a seed and firefly – are limited to the extent that they are downright frustrating. Thanks to the single camera angle and multiple audience members interacting simultaneously, any semblance of interaction with the performance must be imagined. Still, the fact remains that this is live theatre and no two performances are exactly the same.

Unfortunately, in this case, bringing together video game people and theatre people did not create something that is more than the sum of its parts. 'Dream' lacks both the intimate thrill of live theatre and the control of video games; the result is rather like watching somebody else playing a game. Towards the end of the production, the camera draws back to reveal Williams on the motion-capture stage with the virtual world and avatar on a screen behind them, reminding us that we are watching an experiment.

This is not a replacement for live theatre; it is a bold and creative attempt to explore what theatre can be when it embraces emerging technologies, and the public is warmly welcomed to join the RSC – for free, we should add – to be part of that exploration. This is the kind of noble bellyflop of a production that would not be possible if the RSC (a major recipient of Arts Council funding) was under greater pressure to wring profit from its every venture. 'Dream' is refreshingly risky and worth 50 minutes of your time.

Performances take place to 20 March. Tickets are now on sale; watching the performance is free and a ticket to take part and influence the performance is £10.

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