THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
The RSC has used Covid downtime to forge an interesting online experiment which uses live motion-capture technology to bring the faeries of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream to life in a virtual forest. It’s an exploration of how AR (augmented reality) or VR (virtual reality) technology could be melded with livestreaming to shape the future of immersive performance. It fuses the world of gaming with that of online event theatre.
The real-time motion-capture experience is livestreamed to your laptop and sort of works if you’ve the latest version of your browser and if you can figure out what to do with audio (headphones or not?). This points to a problem which is that the audience’s experience will vary wildly depending on their tech and ability.
We are first welcomed by the host Puck (E M Williams) who takes us into a TV studio where the cast in full VR gear transform into on-screen avatars and so we become immersed in a beautiful forest world populated by fiery glow worms. Later we pull back and see the screen, and the performers in front of it carrying out a human ballet or puppetry which animates the characters on screen. It runs just about 30 minutes and focuses on the faeries and sprites from the Dream as they do battle through the forest. There’s a soundscape from Jesper Nordin with musical accompaniment by the Philharmonia which features a brief spoken-word cameo from Nick Cave as the ‘voice of the forest’.
What the interactive audience members get is that twice the screen splits and you are invited using your mouse to become a firefly which then illuminates the way for the characters. The audience becomes the lights. With 7,200 watching (in the performance I attended) the level of impact anyone might have is nominal although the cast reveal in the post-show discussion (one after each performance) that they do notice. The art direction of the forest is lush but nothing we haven’t seen in other formats. We see for example the actor playing Cobweb and how their movements motor the ‘character’ which in this case is a giant eyeball within a large spider’s web. The piece also assumes some knowledge of, or interest in, the play which is a tall order for the teen demographic they’re chasing.
So, the piece blends ‘making of’ with strands of the play and here is the problem. The youthful ‘gee whizz’ distracts from the magic, as if a conjuror might start by telling you where his rabbit is. Admittedly it’s a work in progress but it has a long way to go.
The two main protagonists certainly catch the eye, one figure is like a skeleton built from stones and the other is built from leaves and flowers. What the piece crucially lacks though is any dramatic momentum. It is a more of a movement piece or an exhibition installation.
The Dream has amazing potential which one day will be exploited in VR by some Hollywood bigwig but it probably needs that level of financial investment for a conception like this to really take flight. Remember that Max Reinhardt took his epic production of Dream from Berlin to Hollywood in the 1930s and gave it a whole new American lease of life as a movie.
Does James Cameron like Shakespeare?
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