An avatar in a CGI forest

March 20, 2021, by Peter Kirwan

Dream Online (Royal Shakespeare Company) @ online

In the post-show talk-back for the RSC’s online virtual-reality Dream, the creative team talked enthusiastically about the ‘potential’ of the medium for creating digital theatre productions with open-ended narrative and global interactivity with mass audiences. ‘Potential’ feels like the best word to describe this Dream: a diverting experiment with some beautiful visuals and music, but which felt like it was still in the proof-of-concept stage, a demo for something that might one day be a really thrilling combination of live performance and digital artistry.

Avowedly not a production of Shakespeare’s play, this Dream – with narrative by Robin McNicholas and Pippa Hill – focused on Puck, rendered here by EM Williams as a floating group of stones in humanoid shape. Following a brief introduction by Williams in mo-cap suit in a VR studio, the camera dropped us down from on high into a forest where we watched Puck assemble and then begin exploring a richly designed forest floor. The world was beautifully rendered, and as Puck leapt from branch to rock the camera moved with them to capture the brooks, leaves, branches and shadows of the midsummer forest at night.

And then, after a while, it got dull. In many ways, what this production felt like was the first five minutes of a video game when you’re just getting used to how your character moves in a training level – except watching someone else play it. Williams’s movement was graceful and elegant, a pleasure to watch, but the production’s choice to privilege atmosphere over narrative left what was at stake disappointingly unclear. Across the half-hour, it became clear that the stakes were in fact profound – this was a tale of ecological crisis, of threats to the natural world which culminated in a stunningly realised storm that tore the spirits of the forest to shreds in some genuinely shocking moments of action, and the potential (that word again) for a story that truly opened up Dream to explore the consequences of deforestation became apparent.

But the gnomic pronouncements of the Voice of the Forest (a hushed Nick Cave) kept things impressionistic, and this was where the conflict between performance and gaming felt most pronounced. The production in some respects echoed a traditional quest structure, with Puck needing to track down Moth, Peaseblossom, Cobweb and Mustardseed, and (possibly?) collecting some plants along the way. But the sense of what exactly Puck was trying to achieve was poorly defined, and thus when Puck suddenly emerged into the storm, the shock of cataclysm was too sudden. The whispered fragments of Midsummer Night’s Dream emphasised the sound of poetry, drifting and disconnected from the visuals, and the resulting effect was of a tension between what at times felt like an urgent quest narrative and at other times felt like a meandering surrealist dream.

These tensions were compounded by the interactive element; while the production was free to watch, you could pay a tenner to contribute by taking on the role of a firefly and lighting Puck’s way. This was, at least in my own experience, the most poorly designed section of the whole experience. Puck asked the audience to help light their way through the forest by dropping fireflies into the wood, at which the screen split into two, with a three-dimensional map on the right and the performance on the left. But while I spent a fair amount of time moving fireflies around the diagram, I was never able to see any correlation between what I was doing and what was showing up on the left-hand side, and thus while the production trumpeted the uniqueness of each performance, it was impossible to gauge whether the audience was having any effect whatsoever. And this is a fatal flaw for productions that sell themselves as interactive; if one is promised interaction but one cannot judge the effects of one’s interaction, then what’s the point? This is something that Creation and Big Telly have really nailed, using Zoom to allow audiences to instantly see and hear themselves ‘in’ the production; here, the experience was frustrating and distracting. Further, the interactive section was superimposed over the sequence between Puck and the Voice of the Forest, interfering with the attempts to establish the necessary narrative; and at the same point, Puck became surrounded by fireflies which – rather than lighting the character’s way – instead obscured the actual avatar, making it even harder to see the central sprite. Similarly, we were later given a single chance to sow a seed and grow a plant, and I was unable to tell whether my seed had successfully planted or what it had produced.

The problems of interaction were compounded by the technical issues, including poor visuals/sound synchronisation in the framing introduction (it was less distracting when Williams put on their mask, as at least we couldn’t then tell if it was synced or not) and this viewer being thrown out and needing to re-enter the production having missed a couple of minutes. This latter interruption was particularly frustrating as it came at a point where the production suddenly chose to break its own fourth-wall and pan out of the virtual reality world and back into the studio, where Williams could be seen in their VR suit in front of a screen showing their avatar. Having missed most of the start of that section, I’m not sure why exactly the production did this, but it was certainly an interesting choice to move back out of the production, if yet again reinforcing the sense of this Dream as a demo rather than a fully realised event.

Happily, there was still much to enjoy. The representations of the other spirits were fascinating, especially a creepy Cobweb (Maggie Bain), who manifested as a single eye in the cranny of a tree, surrounded by webbing, dwarfing a minuscule Puck. Moth (Durassie Kiangangu) appeared as a shifting fluttering insect, darting about Puck; Peaseblossom (Jamie Morgan) was a ranging mini-Ent and surprisingly aggressive; and Mustardseed (Loren O’Dair) a mysterious underground voice. Again, there was frustratingly little time spent with these fascinating creations, and the fragmented dialogue prevented a real sense of character (at least in the way talked about by the actors in the Q&A), but as flashes and impressions, the visual inventiveness remained compelling.

And as the production reached its climax, there were some surprising moments of drama. The storm saw all of the spirits gathered together and being torn apart by the winds; the moment where Peaseblossom hunched over in the force of the gale and then splintered into pieces – apparently destroyed – was genuinely shocking, and Puck was pinned to the forest floor by a broken tree. Later, in the forest’s aftermath, Puck asked for the audience’s help in planting new trees, before suddenly breaking back into their constituent parts and reforming a pile of rocks on the newly birthed forest’s floor as the sun rose; a surprisingly sober ending. Given the issues with narrative and characterisation, I was surprised at just how effective a moment this was, and testament to the strength of Williams’s physical and vocal performance. In this, the show absolutely showed the potential of the form – compelling visuals and sound, fascinating character design, and just needing a fully realised story to make it whole.

Posted in Theatre review