Until Saturday 20 March 2021
Royal Shakespeare Company; available to stream live at https://dream.online/
There is no way to overstate the heavy toll continued covid restrictions has taken on the arts industry, especially theatre. Yet, companies and practitioners persevere, experimenting with new ways to deliver remote performances. One such experiment is Dream, a new production from the Royal Shakespeare Company. Working in collaboration with the Manchester International Festival, Marshmallow Laser Feast and Philharmonia Orchestra, RSC uses state of the art technology to bring a live, interactive performance to your home. The production, inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is short, but astoundingly ambitious.
It feels reductive to label the story the weakest part of Dream. Rather, simply, it is not the main focus of the production. Puck (EM Williams), the mischievous sprite best known from Shakespeare’s original comedy, leads the audience on a journey through a magical forest. Along the way they meet four other fairies, specifically those Shakespeare assigned to Titania’s court. These four are Moth (Durassie Kiangangu); Peaseblossom (Jamie Morgan); Cobweb (Maggie Bain) and Mustardseed (Loren O’Dair). When a storm rattles through the forest, however, it is up to Puck to try and protect these spirits until morning. Though all seems lost as the storm rages, with the dawn comes reassurance that the forest shall regrow.
This plot occurs over the course of twenty minutes, and really serves as a vehicle to demonstrate the spectacular technological marvel that is Dream. The forest is entirely digitally rendered, a virtual environment created using Epic Game’s Unreal Engine (most famously used in their hit game Fortnite). The actors, bedecked in full motion capture suits and VR headsets, are transported from a seven-foot stage in Portsmouth to this virtual forest, using the magic of 48 motion capture cameras, facial rigging technology and a host of other software.
In a sense, the performance becomes an animation. This opens up a host of possibilities for character and set design. All the flora and fauna present in the woods is drawn from that mentioned in Midsummer. Raised platforms onstage become brooks, logs and stones.Puck and the other sprites are given wholly unique designs, fitting their natural environment. For example, Moth is an ever-shifting cloud of butterflies; Cobweb, a spider, is shown primarily as an eye peeking out of an acorn cup. Williams, through movement, brings an astonishing emotional range and balletic grace to Puck, whose body is formed of boulders. Gestrument technology also gives each actor the opportunity to contribute to the orchestral score when desired. Each character has a unique instrument associated with them, and actors “play” this instrument by pressing their fingers together.
All this would already be impressive as a pre-recorded performance, but the fact it is live brings in an added element of risk should any of the technology fail. Of course, it is necessary for the interactive elements. The production is free to watch, live or pre-recorded, but for £10 audience members can take on the role of ‘fireflies’. At set points in the play, a viewer can click and drag on the screen to move their firefly, and guide Puck. I confess I found this the least intuitive part of the experience. Even on my third attempt, I was uncertain of how best to move my little beam of light, or in what way it was influencing the performance. This did very little to dampen my enjoyment of the production however.
Each performance is followed by a 20 minute Q&A with the cast and special guests, a discussion of how Dream was an experiment, intended to exhibit and explore the potential of motion capture and streaming technology for future performances. I for one am left thrilled by the possibilities. The forest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was chosen by RSC as the setting because it is a place of transformation and magic. Certainly, watching this transformation in theatre take place, as more companies reach out to other mediums such as games to create new experiences, is truly nothing short of magical.