Dream, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Jessica Harris reviews this online digital production.

It is midsummer’s eve. From the empty stage of the RSC, Puck leads us into the Forest. Ethereal, beautiful and alive, this virtual Forest truly captures the magic of Midsummer Night’s Dream on which Dream is based.

An owl hoots, and for the next twenty minutes we are immersed in this spellbinding environment, where we feel anything might happen. Puck and the four sprites are transformed into digital representations. Puck’s avatar, an assembly of stones in human shape, takes us on a quest to regrow the forest before dawn. As we go deeper in, we meet the avatars of the sprites: Cobweb is a human eye at the centre of a large web. Moth flies to the top of the canopy, whilst Peaseblossom and Mustardseed dance through the undergrowth.

Each performance is live and unique, using real time motion of the RSC’s performers to create the digital animations. The movement of the actors also generates lines of music that contribute to the world of sound that accompanies the piece.

Shakespeare’s language is infused throughout, the Voice of the Forest brought to life by Nick Cave. The delivery pace is slow, giving the audience time to savour the poetry.

The piece was short – just 25 minutes in length, followed by a Q&A with actors and members of the creative team, providing insight into how it was put together in these socially isolated times. As such, the chance for it to develop, or to explore Shakespeare’s themes in depth, was constrained.

Through focussing on visuals and sound, the RSC’s ambition was to create an immersive and interactive experience. For me, the opportunity to interact by inserting fireflies into the piece to illuminate the Forest and stimulate the actors’ movements, was limited. So too was the extent to which immersion is possible when viewing via 2D screen.

However, this piece is as much about the RSC exploring the opportunities of the digital realm as anything else. As the creative team explained, Dream is about transformation, and about understanding how digital technologies can be harnessed to build on the theatrical experience, as and when we can get back to seeing work in venues. The learning generated will be shared with the wider performing arts sector, helping it understand the imaginative and commercial potential of the virtual realm.

On the night that I viewed this performance, over 7,000 others did as well. There is truly a hunger for theatre in all its forms.

The piece, directed by Robin McNicholas, was produced in collaboration with Manchester International Festival, Marshmallow Laser Feast, and Philharmonia Orchestra.

Pic – Paul Mumford (c) Dream, 2021/Marshmallow Laser Feast/Paul Mumford.