Do you know of a site where the wild thyme blows? You do now.
“Dream,” an interactive experience from the Royal Shakespeare Company, which runs through Saturday and lasts about as long as a power nap, transports its thousands of viewers to a sylvan grove, then to a rehearsal space in Portsmouth, England, for a live Q&A. Tickets are free, though those who prefer a lightly interactive experience can purchase seats for 10 British pounds (about $14) and appear onscreen as fireflies.
Inspired by Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — in the wispiest, most gossamer way imaginable — “Dream” signifies a bounding leap forward for theater technology and a short jog in place for theater itself.
A different “Dream” was meant to open in Stratford-upon-Avon about a year ago, as a showcase for Audience of the Future, a consortium of institutions and tech innovators assembled in 2019 and tasked with exploring new ways to make and deliver theater remotely. (Theater on your phone? They saw it first.) The 2020 “Dream” would have played to both a live audience and a remote one, integrating actors, projections and live motion-capture into a verdant whole.
But in-person audiences are rare these days, and this remote “Dream,” however gorgeous — and it is gorgeous, enormously gorgeous — feels thinner for it, less a forest of imagination and more a small copse of some really lovingly rendered trees. It begins with Puck (E.M. Williams), that merry wanderer of the night, imagined here as an assemblage of pebbles in the approximate shape of a human body. Why render Puck — nimble, fleet and girdling the earth in the time it takes most of us to load the dishwasher — as a pile of rocks? Dunno. Looks cool.
In traveling around the forest, Puck encounters Shakespeare’s other fairies, like Moth (an accumulation of moths), Peaseblossom (sticks and flowers) and Cobweb (an eyeball inside a squirrel’s drey). Apparently, Puck also met Mustardseed (more sticks?). I missed it. And the singer Nick Cave contributed some voice acting! I missed that, too.
“Dream,” performed live, is exquisite, denatured and almost entirely contentless. It isn’t quite theater, and it isn’t precisely film, though it could pass for a highbrow “Avatar” short. For stretches, it resembles a meditative video game, but it isn’t that either, mostly because the interactive elements (clicking and dragging fireflies around the landscape) are wholly inconsequential.
Watching it, I felt inexplicably cranky, like a toddler who has been offered a variety of perfectly nice snacks but doesn’t want any of them. Because maybe what the toddler really wants is to safely see an actual play in an actual theater with an actual audience. And that just isn’t available right now.
So I don’t really know what to say about “Dream.” Because it represents an obviously fruitful and seemingly happy collaboration among top-of-their-game actors, directors, designers, composers and technicians, many of whom assumed some physical risk in the making of it. (Among them are Robin McNicholas, credited with direction and narrative development; Pippa Hill, credited with script creation and narrative development; and Esa-Pekka Salonen, the production’s music director and co-composer.) It also signals real progress in the use of live motion-capture (something the Royal Shakespeare Company has already experimented with) and offers a tantalizing glimpse of how that technology might be used when proper in-person theater returns.
But this isn’t proper theater. Or even improper theater. It’s a sophisticated demonstration of an emergent technology. Shakespeare is the pretext, not the point. The pentameter, pushed into random virtual mouths, helps us better appreciate the software architecture — which is great if you like software and less great if you like the language itself, or the original play’s plot or characters or keen insights into our big, dumb, desiring hearts. This “Dream” is beautiful. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all wake up now?