In Dream’s post-show Q&A someone keeps asking about the budget. The team elegantly swerve the question, but I’ll do my best. The show has been made possible by the Audience of the Future programme (£39.3 million shared between 6 announced-so-far projects) and Unreal Engine’s wonderfully titled Epic MegaGrants (£60 million between 1000 grants of up to 500k). So, I think we can take a wild estimation of: very spenny. Yet, whilst Dream is an important piece of RnD that will turn up in academic papers for years to come, it already feels like an outdated stepping stone on the route to somewhere more magical. I want to believe in faeries, I truly do, but for now there is more magic in Tinkerbell’s refracted mirror-light than in this expensive experiment.
Dream isn’t Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, it’s a self-contained narrative that follows Puck (EM Williams) and the rest of the faerie crew over one stormy night. Utilising real-time motion capture, the performers scramble over boxes in sensor-covered suits to be reborn as faceless avatars in a digital forest. I want to commend the team’s commitment to the recreation of the flora referenced in Shakespeare’s play but it’s all a bit blobby when you get up close, so we’ll just have to take the accuracy of the nodding violets on trust. There’s also some beautiful music, a symphonic score from Philharmonia Orchestra, augmented by sounds created in real time by the movements of the performers. It’s all very clever and somehow utterly soulless.
I also want to be impressed by the complex optical system that allows Puck’s river stone-smooth body to be rendered in real time, but all I can see is a faceless artist’s manikin clonking around like a Clive Barker CBeebies special. I already know that Williams is a performer whose physicality and facial expressions are imbued with the roguish, slippery elfin charm that makes Puck the archetypal sprite. They showed me as much in the 30 seconds we had together, them guiding me down the corridor into the mo-cap dungeon. So why would I want to watch them through this flattening filter? What is gained by this innovation? Sure, it looks a lot of fun to be part of, but the audience experience is like watching someone else play a game. And unlike your favourite interactive streamer, it’s alienating. It feels like when I sincerely try to connect with my nephew’s passion for Minecraft. I don’t understand, and ultimately, I don’t care (sorry Mark. I’ll still get you the Lego next visit).
There is something here I do care about. Nick Cave as the voice of the forest has me ready to sign up to be its resident Blair Witch. The Goth-in-chief has maybe three minutes of hot-woodland-voice action, however his presence made me to think about content, form, and play. Cave as an artist is never afraid to fuck about with form and to find new ways of finding connection. Last year’s live streamed Idiot Prayer, was the most ground-breaking digital performance I’ve seen all lockdown. He played an incredibly fancy piano, the solidly-real character of which, resonating in the empty Alexandria Palace, permeated through screens and speakers into our homes reminding us how very alone we were, together in that moment.
Cave’s work is always dancing with horror of existence, yet with his tongue firmly in those vulpine cheeks. His purposefully stupid gift shop is stocked with offensive doggy coats and ‘the world’s best stickers’. There’s a contestant underpinning of mischief that feels, well, very Puck-ish. It’s maybe not a fair comparison, but it highlights how EARNEST Dream is. It lacks the sense of play that you expect from a show that promises audience interaction and is made in collaboration with a company called Marshmallow Laser Quest. A £10 interactive ticket gives you the chance to be part of the show by clicking fireflies to ‘fly’ around the actors. Whilst it makes a very satisfying clunk when clicked, I can’t tell which pin prick of light on screen is mine and the action feel repetitive and pointless. I am a lonely Shakespeare appreciating pigeon, repeatedly hitting a button in the hope of a sweet sweet hit of grain.
Dream isn’t actually the first time the RSC have worked with this type of technology. In 2016, Gregory Doran’s The Tempest incorporated live-motion capture to trap Ariel in a 17ft tree. It was frankly iconic and has made a guest appearance in every undergrad paper on the concept of ‘live’ ever since due to its combination of ‘present’ and digital performance. In Dream, the digital realm allows Puck’s faerie pals to take on impossible shapes, twisting into humanoid tree stumps or exploding into wings of scattered light, but the awe factor is limited to when we see the effects being played out live alongside the body that created it. In a world where we’re used deep fake Tom Cruise, these manifestations are only impressive when the labour and artistry is revealed, and where we are invited to connect with the humans behind the screen.
The RSC’s Dream is available to watch online until 20th March. More info here.