The opening moments of Dream contain all the enticements of an augmented Imax experience, beamed to our laptops. The camera hovers over a forest drenched in mist, then swoops in as if entering a 3D DreamWorks movie. Our host, Puck (EM Williams), is in a real-life studio and transforms into an avatar on our screens.
Despite the futuristic feel, we are entering a Shakespearean forest and following Puck into an experiment that splices A Midsummer Night’s Dream with cutting-edge immersive and gaming technology.
Puck meets some sprites and battles a big, obliterating storm but the story does not go far beyond this truncated narrative and it is all over too soon. In fairness, that is because this is a technological work-in-progress that producers, the RSC, Manchester international festival, Marshmallow Laser Feast and the Philharmonia Orchestra, have decided to share with the public at this stage in its development.
Directed by Robin McNicholas, it is only around 30 minutes long but a crowd-puller nonetheless. We are told, at a pre-show Q&A, that it has been watched by more than 20,000 people from around the world in just three days, and there are more than 7,000 people present on the night I tune in.
Its makers speak of exploring the future of live performance with this technology but the ambition, for now, surpasses the reality. We have been promised Nick Cave’s voice in the forest but these are short exchanges with Puck that are spoken rather than sung, and they pale in comparison with the effects of the live foley sounds and the Philharmonia’s musical accompaniment. The audience is occasionally invited to participate but this feels nominal (we flick a few virtual fireflies around to light the way for Puck across the forest). The real participation comes from actors using motion capture technology, live in the studio, to create the forest scenes we are seeing on our screens.
The most exciting moment comes when the technology itself is exposed to the audience; the camera pans into the studio and shows us both the screen with the avatars adventuring in the forest alongside their human counterparts, enacting the drama in real-time motion capture, below the screen. The actors perform a kind of human puppetry, lifting each other up and manipulating limbs for the effects on screen. In a post-show discussion between the actors, Maggie Bain, who plays the sprite Cobweb (a giant eyeball inside a web), speaks of how the eye’s movements on screen are generated by her hands and its dilations controlled by her feet. The achievement of this unfinished work hits home when seen in conjunction with these mechanics, and the “making of” seems more exciting than the film itself.
Sarah Ellis, director of digital development at the RSC, points out that this new, hi-tech version of live drama is not a replacement of physical theatre. It’s a “yes and” rather than an “either/or”, she stresses. It is reassuring to hear it but even if this short forest journey is a little underwhelming right now, it points to a potentially broadened definition of theatre through hybridity, and a broadened audience, too. Its producers speak of bringing the gaming and theatre communities together, hinting at the prospect of us, ultimately, becoming Puck’s avatar and entering the drama ourselves.
It certainly winks at a future in which the industry is more protean. It may not be a thrilling night of theatre as it stands, but it opens up a world of possibility for theatre’s collision with other forms.