Over a year has now gone by since theatres first closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, prompting a vast array of hybrid-theatre alternatives, from greatly-reduced capacity audiences to online streaming of theatre-films. Yet out of all the pandemic innovations, this brief, astonishing piece of live motion capture theatre has been the best I have seen. Devised by a team from the Royal Shakespeare Company – who have staged the production as part of an ongoing research project that it is not yet in its final form – Dream interpolates live, physical performances with pre-made material – voices, music, and the computer-generated forest world inhabited by the play.
Heavily featured in the promotional material for Dream has been the cameo of Australian musician Nick Cave, and the combination of star appeal and the general zaniness of Cave playing the voice of a forest will have been a major draw for many audience members. His appearance is brief, early in the play, though it helps set an ethereal tone which I found central to the play’s appeal. Cave’s musical murmurings are whispered in vocal register somewhere between speech and song, akin to the narrated moments of his 2019 album Ghosteen. He lends a sense of grandeur and personality to the vividly rendered forest environment, though the play soon moves on, transcending his delightful cameo.
Dream magnificently constructs its world; its excellent sound design (a mix of pre-recorded orchestral pieces and sound effects triggered adaptively during the performance) are matched by consistently inventive visuals. In one sequence, a miniaturised Puck – played with delightful energy by EM Williams – finds themselves entangled not in a spider’s web, but in a spider’s web-like eyelashes. A tree suddenly comes to life; as it moves, dead leaves drop from the twisted branches of his body. Near the play’s end, Puck – who is depicted with a body made from rocks – is trapped by a fallen tree. All of these moments are a testament not only to the team’s creativity, but their precision in making the motion captured interaction with the environment near-seamless.
The story is relatively slight, even within the forty-minute runtime. It initially focuses on exploration of the world, before a storm arrives, where it turns into an exhilarating fight for survival. Puck is the only character still standing, not blown away by the fierce winds. The dialogue is composed of lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, extracted and stitched together, the result being more of a tone poem than a consistent narrative; instead the slight story is contained in the movement through the world.
This slightly ‘greatest hits’ approach to Shakespearean language could be questioned, with the lines sometimes being chosen for the effects, or for their superficial similarity to part of the story. However, the more significant Shakespearean import is the sense of place. The Shakespearean forest – especially in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It – is a place of escape, often from the strictures of courtly life. In the former the forest sees characters fleeing the rather tyrannical marital demands Theseus makes of Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius and Helena, and his own bride-to-be Hippolyta. Yet it is also a space which contains its own dangers – not just the mischievous magic, but an untamed wildness. In Dream, this wildness comes not from any malevolent forces, but from nature itself, in the form of the storm. Similar too between Dream and Shakespeare’s work is the gesture of bringing the human and supernatural worlds together. Here, this interaction is staged between the human actors and the transformative potential of technology (rather than magic).
I was enchanted throughout the play, though wondered what the intentions of the company were during most of the duration. As stunning as Dream’s animation can be, the effect becomes even more impressive – and the company’s ideas much clearer – when the cameras pull back. The masked human performers are revealed, wearing motion capture attire and standing in front of a projected view of the forest world. We are confronted with both the results of their actions and the intricacy required in interacting with the digital space.
This is not the RSC’s first foray into motion capture Shakespeare. Their excellent 2016 production of The Tempest featured scenes in which Ariel transformed into a vast CGI projection above the stage. Though initially dazzling, the grandeur of the effects serves instead to highlight the quietness of the interstices. The sudden absence of sheer spectacle made Simon Russell-Beale’s closing soliloquy as Prospero all the more spectacular – standing alone in the centre of a wide, now-bare stage, renouncing his magic.
The ending of Dream has a similar effect as the story is humanised before us. Early sequences in which Puck flies around the forest are charming, yet seeing the team effort required to lift the actor into the air is heart-warming, a testament to the close collaboration inherent to theatre, after a year of distance.
Though the play could be read as an ecological account of a forest under threat, watched in the current circumstances, the story seems instead to be a metaphor for endurance. The play rather beautifully tells a simple story of weathering a storm and surviving against the odds. Dream shows that theatre is not just surviving the pandemic, but in some cases it can thrive.
DreamPresented by the Royal Shakespeare Company
Reviewed 21st March 2021