June 22, 2013, by Peter Kirwan

Midsummer Night’s Dreaming (RSC/Google+)

Saturday 21:42

Over the Midsummer weekend, the RSC is putting on its fortieth production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with a difference. In the latest of a series of big-money partnerships (following last year’s partnership with BP on the Shipwreck season), the company is putting on the play via Google, Twitter and live performances in real time over three days. There’s a full explanation of the project here and an introduction here.

In the spirit of the event, I’ll be checking in here and updating as I can. Currently, I’ll admit it’s a little hard to get a handle on, but here’s my basic guide:

The Google+ site is one of the main hubs. Here, the characters are posting images, memes, updates and quotes, while online audiences get involved. The main area, however, is the ‘virtual stage‘ . Curated by Puck, the one character moving freely between the fictional and virtual worlds, the stage brings together several different strands of characters, live news feeds and a sense of the real-time action being performed by actors and technicians. One can lose oneself in the range of bizarre characters, such as the haiku-composing Bear, Lysander’s little sister Ophelia who is planning her escape from a band of renegade nuns, and a philosophical Forester.

Currently, I’m not sure if I’m meant to be able to locate the main characters or not, but I imagine that most of the action will be taking place late at night. Either way, I’m going to keep an eye out and see if clearer narratives start to emerge. The production is, understandably, at least partially aimed at introducing people to Google+, and I imagine more experienced users of the platform will be much more agile than I am at navigating the various ‘circles’ and groups, but for now there appears to be a great deal of amusing and creative content online. More anon.

Saturday 22:31

Mrs Snug is looking at lion costumes.

Sunday 10:55

I’ve been catching up this morning with Antiope, Hippolyta’s maid. She’s complaining a lot about love, inviting the Apothecary to find her a potion to help someone fall out of love. I can’t work out if this is someone she is besotted with herself, or if she’s miserable following the hen do she threw for Hippolyta. Either way, she’s posting Smiths videos. Another interesting little story is Beagle the Bellows-Maker, turned into a dog some time ago by Theseus. It looks like he encountered Antiope who showed him some affection. Beagle has been watching the Mechanicals, and from him I learn that Bottom was transformed back from an ass a little while ago. Ophelia seems to have escaped, and her most recent video celebrates freedom, though pointing out that this is not a happy ending as her life is about to begin.

The site is generating a huge amount of content, and I’m starting to find it a little easier to navigate, though I think I’d still appreciate a more prominent overview/mediating figure (I thought Puck would be doing this). However, as the day goes on and we approach more bits of live performance, I’m sure some of the stories will start coming more to the fore.

Sunday 13:25

The Athenian Mercury is good fun, offering tabloid-style reportage and agony-aunt responses to the worries of several characters. I’m intrigued at the moment, though, by the photos coming out of the RSC rehearsal rooms. I’m not quite sure where these fit into the grand narrative – are these actual rehearsals or part of one of the live performances happening? From what I can tell, the main thing now is the build-up to the wedding: Hercules has got his speech ready, and they appear to be selling cupcakes in Stratford-upon-Avon. The relationship between the digital and the live is an interesting one and not without its problems – there is a very intimate sense that we are getting access to areas of town usually off-limits, but at the same time it looks like there is something going on that we’re very much not a part of. For example,I see there is a klezmer band: but Puck doesn’t seem to want to tell us quite why or what for. Is this part of the event, or just something happening in Stratford by coincidence?

Sunday 15:39

I’m enjoying the poems of Justin Snout, who’s nursing an unrequited love for Helena (one suspects she’s entirely unaware). Hercules has just been giving his best man’s speech, though I suspect this is a practice, as I don’t think the wedding has taken place yet. I’m starting to get more of a sense of the outdoor stage – this photo is helpful, as there’s a programme of events, which confirms the klezmer band is part of the show.

Sunday 20:35

I’m having some real frustrations with the platform. The virtual stage keeps jumping as I read it, particularly frustrating when trying to scroll down the Mechanicals section on the far right. Bottom has appeared on the virtual stage, repeating the conversion of someone called the Evil Weaver. This story has evaded me so far.

Puck has been posting images from the live event. I think this is where I’m most feeling the disappointments of the project so far. Distant snapshots of a small stage in a field where an audience is watching a performance of Pyramus and Thisbe isn’t a strong hook, and doesn’t give me any sense of what is actually happening in the live shows (are these continuous?). The online characters, meanwhile, have each been posting quite sporadically and for the most part it’s general chat.

I think the problem is the platform, Google+. While this might offer an effective illustration of what being part of that community is actually like, it’s not gripping for an outsider and it defies narrative thread. A platform such as Facebook or Twitter would actually be a much more coherent way of organising the responses of 40+ characters to events happening over a three day period. I want to see how these individuals are reacting to events that are happening in real time, which was surely the point of having a concerted three-day event, yet this is the one thing that isn’t coming across.

This isn’t to say that the experiment so far hasn’t yielded a great deal of creative content, far from it. But without the narrative meet to tie it together, it’s difficult to sustain an interest, the urgency of coming back to see what’s happened next.

Sunday 22:03

A really lovely clip just up of Snug getting into costume. What I love about this is, firstly, its length (as opposed to several of the other videos posted so far which last only a few seconds), but more importantly the picture it gives of the festival environment in Stratford, and the overheard comment ‘It’s just a normal RSC production, isn’t it?’ There’s a real sense that there is something exciting happening, a communal atmosphere surrounding a makeshift and genuinely experimental production, and I’d love to see more of this kind of content – it’s exactly what the platform does well, and gives the privileged view unavailable to a live audience.

Monday 09:26

It’s over, as the Virtual Stage is telling us. There’s a great deal of positive feedback coming in from those who attended the midnight finale in Stratford, which does look quite lovely. I’ve found images of the final production but no video – if that is the case, it’s a real shame that there wasn’t more effort to bring together the live and digital audiences for a shared finish.

On the bright side, the creative ambition of this project is clearly laudable, and there’s obvious potential here for expansion in relation to future productions. As someone who experienced #dream40 purely electronically, however, I was disappointed by Midsummer Night’s Dreaming. There seemed to be so much opportunity for the kind of immersive, free-roaming storytelling that characterises modern video-gaming; the chance to see the action from multiple viewpoints in the manner of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead; the building of multiple narratives that engaged with and informed on the play. My overall impression of the virtual stage was one of an inward-looking chaos. Quotes and posts seemed disconnected to what we could gather about the experience of the characters. and the collage of material created – while impressive in its variety and scope – lacked the cohesion that would have enabled me to buy in. One might usefully compare the work of companies such as Punch Drunk, whose acclaimed Masque of the Red Death allowed people to explore a range of storylines independently, some more relevant than others, but who also engineered moments of cohesion that brought the audience back together and, finally, culminated in a collective experience. Crucially, the bizarre and interesting new characters who dominated the online sphere, while diverting, seemed to put up a barrier between the online viewer and the ‘main’ event, which remained frustratingly elusive all weekend.

It’s a bold experiment and one that I hope is repeated, but if it is I hope that more attention is given to the divergent experiences and the ways in which the purely virtual user can pleasurably experience a party that is happening elsewhere.

Posted in Events