This past year, we’ve had so many conversations about why we miss theatre. And at the centre of all of them are words like ‘live’ and ‘collective’. When we think about theatre, we think about rows and rows of seats; we think about rapturous applause; we think about intervals, stage doors, programmes. But maybe it can be more. Both created during the pandemic, the RSC’s Dream and the NSDF production Not Near Enough use virtual reality to push the boundaries of theatre as a genre. While both use the technology to reimagine literary texts, they approach this task from very different angles.
Dream, based on A Midsummer Night's Dream, feels like what would've happened if Shakespeare knew about Just Dance. Filmed live via a small cast of actors in motion capture suits, the production follows the character of Puck through the forest. While the technology is very impressive, there is no real narrative and the piece has no emotional impact. The live aspect, and the opportunity for interaction (audience members can pay to interact as ‘fireflies’, providing lighting) makes it hard to claim that it's definitively not theatre, but something is clearly lacking. Instead, it’s a ‘theatrical experience’.
Not Near Enough is described as a ‘theatrical experience’ from the outset. Based on the Camus novel La Peste, it features a series of scenes that explore themes of illness and community, portrayed through VR technology that we experience via 360 YouTube video. The show is hugely creative, such as in a sequence where the cast lip-sync overlapping speeches by political leaders. Hearing Boris Johnson’s “stay at home” echo around a revolving technological room shows the power of sound in VR, while also emphasising the production’s relevance to our current political climate.
It felt to me like Not Near Enough was actually the more successful production. Unlike Dream, which remained in its forest setting, it was constantly reinventing itself; it also made the most of being interdisciplinary, factoring in recorded speech, dance, and singing. Not Near Enough presented a deep exploration of its source material, reproduced in many different contexts and made relevant to our lives now, whereas Dream stayed stagnant in the world of Shakespeare’s play without any kind of narrative exploration. It comes down to this: in Not Near Enough, the VR was a tool to delve into a text and create from it a show; in Dream, the VR was the show.
In theory, Dream is live, and both productions are collective experiences. We know that other people are experiencing the shows at the same time we are... but we can’t feel their presence. We don’t hear gasps, or laughs, or stifled sobs. This is theatre in that it’s interactive, but something is missing. Virtual reality challenges our very conception of theatre as a genre, and what makes it unique from other forms of online entertainment; as Sarah Ellis put it in Dream’s post-show Q&A, these shows are ‘the start of a conversation’ – and one that is only just beginning.