November 30, 2023

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” may be one of Shakespeare’s most-performed plays – but its latest version by the Royal Shakespeare Company will be unlike any other seen before. The 50-minute streaming production entitled “Dream” combines live performance with motion capture technology, 3D graphics and interactive playing techniques that allow the audience to guide Puck through a virtual forest from a distance.

While the live theater is sprinkled with serious high-tech fairy dust, “Dream” promises to bring “an extremely rare vision” of the play to our screens and borrow a line from Shakespeare. It can be viewed online at different times once a day from Friday through March 20.

“It’s part of our ongoing commitment to this brave new world,” said Gregory Doran, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. In the theater production “The Tempest” in 2016, a digital 3D avatar was created using live motion capture technology and projected over the stage.

The difference this time is that everything in the play – the performers and their surroundings – is rendered virtually.

A cast of seven will perform in a purpose-built studio in Portsmouth, southern England, wearing Lycra motion capture suits equipped with sensors. You will be surrounded by a 360 degree camera rig made up of 47 cameras. Every movement is reproduced almost instantly by digital avatars that are relayed to viewers via the stream. These magical characters move seamlessly through a computer-generated woodland, and the plot is narrated in hoarse tones by Australian singer-songwriter Nick Cave as the voice of the forest.

To the audience watching at home, the virtual fairies moving through a digital forest look more like a video game or CGI blockbuster than your average Royal Shakespeare Company show. However, the performances are broadcast live and in real time. Every night will be unique.

With its shortened running time and a greatly reduced cast of characters, “Dream” is not a full production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Rather, it is an inspired tale that focuses on Puck and the fairies. But don’t expect cute digital wings: these are elementary, mysterious forces of nature.

The art collective Marshmallow Laser Feast, which works with virtual, mixed and augmented reality, created digital avatars for the actors to make them look like they were born in nature. Puck is made of pebbles and stones, while Titania’s fairies are made of moth wings, cobwebs, earth, or roots. The fairies are shapeshifters who blend into recognizable human and animal shapes on screen, and grow or shrink so they’re small enough to “sneak into acorn cups,” as Puck puts it.

“It’s a form of puppetry,” said Sarah Ellis, director of digital development for the Royal Shakespeare Company. “These avatars come to life when they breathe, and how they breathe depends on the live actor.”

The performance-boosting software called Unreal Engine is used across the video game industry and is behind popular titles like Gears of War and Fortnite. Since 2013, Epic Games, the company that developed it, has specialized in creating interactive 3D content using the tool for film and television, and increasingly for live events such as music festivals, museum exhibitions and theater productions.

For both Epic Games and the Royal Shakespeare Company, combining the technology with live performance and instantly broadcasting it to thousands of devices via a web player is an experiment. And then there is the interactive component.

Up to 2,000 spectators per performance can become part of the show and are invited to lead Puck through the forest. On the screen, the selected viewers appear as a cloud of tiny fireflies: they can use the mouse, trackpad or finger on the screen of a smart device to move their fireflies across the screen, and Puck follows their example through the firefly virtual space.

“Without the fireflies – the audience – Puck wouldn’t be going anywhere,” said EM Williams, who plays the role. “The audience is very much the fuel, the energy of the show.”

In a traditional stage production, the “tech” rehearsals take place last after weeks of work by the actors on character and narration. For “Dream” the process started with adjustments to the motion capture suits so that the players could calibrate their movements. Their digital avatars were reflected on huge LED screens in the studio to orient the performers in the virtual environment.

“It looks so three-dimensional, like it sometimes appears on the screen,” Williams said of the computer-generated forest. “There are times when I expect to feel it when I touch it. It breaks the veil between the technological world and the real world. “

The Royal Shakespeare Company has long been considered the bastion of traditional British theater: a reverence for text and verse driven by great actors. Did the company expect resistance to its high-tech experimental approach? Several reviewers said the Tempest motion capture was a gimmick.

“There will of course be criticism,” said Doran, the company’s artistic director. He hoped, however, that “Dream” would appeal to both traditional theater audiences and those attracted by technology.

Plus, Shakespeare’s genius means that his plays can accommodate any new inventions that are thrown at them. “It’s the same as an experimental production of one of those pieces,” Doran said. “Shakespeare is robust: he will still be there.”

Presented online by the Royal Shakespeare Company March 12-20;