Not a very catchy summary of a show, I must admit, but that’s the nearest I can get to describing the online experience that we enjoyed last night. When I was a kid, I had the double album “BBC 1922 – 1972” (I always was trendy) which commemorated the first fifty years of the Beeb, and featured dozens of fascinating and entertaining ancient recordings. One of the earliest was from Station 2MT (which would soon develop into the BBC), with one Captain Eckersley broadcasting from an ex-army hut in Writtle, Essex, with the words This is Two Emma Toc, Writtle testing, and enthusiasts around the country would twiddle the cat’s whisker on their new-fangled wireless machine and, miracle of miracles, Eckersley’s dulcet tones came into their living room out of nowhere. What a thrill that must have been.
This vague recollection (as I haven’t played that album for a good many years) came back into my head as we watched, and interacted with, the new online production, Dream, inspired (no surprise) by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with your host Puck, accompanied by four sprites, each of whom has their own special power to help you through the perils of an enchanted wood. The chief element that I took from the show was the unlimited potential that this new technology has for transforming the arts in the future.
The timing of this innovative approach to combine theatre with immersive technology couldn’t be more perfect. It’s almost exactly one year on from when I last set foot in a theatre, and, with the best will in the world, I – and I’m sure many others – still wrestle with a reticence about the safety of joining a real-life mid-pandemic (or even post-pandemic) audience in the coming months. So, if there is one thing the arts needs right now, it’s to find new ways of exploring online and virtual methods of getting drama into people’s homes.
This is where the Audiences of the Future initiative comes in. It aims to examine and explore ways of combining immersive technologies as part of the audience experience in the fields of art, culture, heritage and entertainment. Thus Dream is not only an artistic work in its own right, but also a piece of research and development within this wider framework. Audiences log in on their laptops, phones and tablets to watch five actors perform live at the Guildhall in Portsmouth; for yes, these performances are all live, all that’s recorded are the musical contributions of the Philharmonia Orchestra and Nick Cave (yes, he of the Bad Seeds) as the Voice of the Forest. Prospective audience members have two alternatives for experiencing Dream; you can simply turn up and watch a show, live, for free, or for the princely sum of £10 you can upgrade to being an Audience Plus member. This makes you a virtual firefly, with the ability to influence the characters and action with the aid of your mouse.
You arrive at the Dream Lobby in advance of the show starting; that’s the place to pick up tips on how best to enjoy it and how to interact with it. When the show starts, EM Williams, who plays Puck with great charm and warmth, welcomes you in, and invites you to follow them through the forest for a magical adventure. The show is constructed so that you can get glimpses of both the backstage gubbins and the full product at the same time, which offers you a truly fascinating insight into how the whole thing works.
So let’s concentrate on the good things, because there are good things a-plenty. The technology is outstanding. Over 7,200 devices logged into yesterday evening’s show, and there was never a hint that the Internet wouldn’t be able to take the load. The picture and the sound were of the highest quality, as were the performances and choreography, because this show relies heavily on movement. The visual design of the forest was exciting and intriguing, colourful and intense; and the presentations of the characters themselves – the term avatar is being used, but I know nothing about gaming – are inventive and hugely creative. Puck appears as a disconnected collection of rocks, Moth is a free-fluttering floaty thing made of leaves, Mustardseed a moving bundle of branches, Peaseblossom an assembly of flowers, and Cobweb is a spooky eye emerging through cobwebs in a tree. The imagination behind and execution of these dreamlike beings are just superb.
Also really impressive is the use of a clever little piece of software called Gestrument, that creates perfect musical accompaniments to the movements of the characters, adding magic and colour to the presentation. The luscious, pre-recorded music, played by the Philharmonia Orchestra, are three excerpts from a recording made just before Lockdown 1.0, composed and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. In fact, the whole production is a testament to collaboration between so many different companies and specialists, and it is an absolute credit to them that it has come to fruition so successfully.
It’s important to take this current production for what it is – a piece of research and development, one step in finding a way through the tricky troubled times of right now to find innovative answers for the future. As a result, it would be wrong to gloss over what didn’t work about the production. The interactivity, whereby you basically lob a few fireflies into the action to illuminate the way, is great in theory, and clearly lends support and direction to the cast. But it’s a damp squib to the audience, who only get a vague sense of where their firefly might have landed, in amongst a sea (wrong metaphor I know) of other firefly trails, all landing higgledy-piggledy in the forest. My fairy trajectories weren’t up to much anyway, but then I’ve never been much of a Pinball Wizard. If you’re going to invite the audience to influence the action (and indeed charge them for the pleasure), then the reward must be more obvious and more beneficial. The technology is brilliant, but that alone is not enough to give you a satisfactory audience experience. In addition, whilst it’s great to discover that it’s possible to create this work live, the live element didn’t as such offer any greater meaning or pleasure to the audience experience than if it had been recorded. But, of course, with different content, performing it live could be a whole new kettle of fish.
This is clearly the gateway to something more significant stretching into the future. It needs a much bigger brain than mine to grapple with all the possibilities that this technology offers, but anything that extends the reach of the theatre into the home can only be A Good Thing in my book. We’re only at the Writtle Testing stage right now, but, who knows, in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time… the ether’s the limit.
This Royal Shakespeare Company co-production is a collaboration with the Manchester International Festival, Marshmallow Laser Feast and the Philharmonia Orchestra, and offers performances at different times to suit different time zones and continues to play until 20th March. For more information, click here!
Production photos by Stuart Martin for the RSC