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REVIEW: Dream online at RSC

There is much to admire about the RSC’s digitally ambitious Dream and so it seems churlish to add a damp honk to excitable fanfare with which it has been greeted. But here goes.

In these strange times with theatre doors closed until at least the summer, hats off to the company for exploring what can be offered as live arts while audiences are of necessity on the other side of a screen.

This Dream was always meant to be funkily techy, an advance on the cutting-edge fandango offered by The Tempest in 2016, which brought digital conjuring to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage and included such holographic wonders as sailors drowning under the seas as a storm rages.

When the lockdown halted the original Dream, which was due to open on stages in Spring 2020, thinking caps were donned to come up with a way of broadcasting the performance live in a new and interesting way.

The tip-toppest companies in the land were invited to collaborate with Marshmallow Laser Feast, bringing the tech wizardry, Philharmonia Orchestra supplying a sympatico score, and the RSC laying on the creative flair. The project is one of four Audience of the Future Demonstrator projects, supported by the government Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund which is delivered by UK Research and Innovation.

Puck meets Cobweb
Puck meets Cobweb

Dream in inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you log on to watch it via the dream.online website, and it basically harnesses gaming-style technology, to create an immersive and interactive ‘performance environment’. The actors perform in motion capture suits in a wired up space that captures their movements and translates it onto the audience’s screens. We see them as virtual avatars inhabiting the Midsummer forest.

You have to book a ticket for set live performances – there’s no catch up. The production opens with the actor EM Williams, who plays Puck, inviting us to move from the real world into a digital one.

The digital forest looks amazing – a lush swirl of animation draws you in, each leaf doing its bit to radiate the magic of a beguiling dell, and the music, sometimes dreamlike often staccato, works a magical spell.

Once in this cartoonish kingdom, Puck morphs into a rather charmless clumpy collection of rocks that sort of resembles an artist’s manikin. From there the tricksy Puck explores the forest and visits fellow fairy chums.

Nick Cave has lent his darkly timbered tones as the voice of the forest, but his input is brief and a bit of a waste. Imagine what his sonorous delivery could lend to Oberon's lines.

There’s no love plot, no mechanicals arsing about, not much characterisation. But there is a strong sense of nature, elements battling. Compared to seeing a proper production of MSND it is like enjoying a brief poem while breathing in a pine-scented candle. Oh and you can plop a blob of light onto the action, as if you were a firefly – that’s the theory anyway.

One of the problems is that you don’t really feel like it’s live action… Director Robin McNicholas remedies this by cutting away from the animation to expose the actors working in their digital box backstage – but this backfires as it is actually much more marvellous to behold them swirling and cavorting in their physical world, killing the choreography.

There’s much talk of this production introducing Shakespeare to new audiences – and there was an impressive 7,252 viewers logged on to watch when I saw it this week and so hurrah to that. But for now this old-timer can’t wait to sit on a velvet seat in an auditorium to watch 3D professionals doing what they do best.

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