‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ Sprinkled with High-Tech Fairy Dust

“Midsummer Night’s Dream” may be one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays – but its latest version of the Royal Shakespeare Company will be unlike any seen before. Titled “Dream”, the 50-minute streamed production fuses live performances with motion-capture technology, 3-D graphics, and interactive gaming techniques that guide viewers from afar through a virtual jungle .

As live theater sprinkled with some seriously high-tech fairy dust, “Dream” promises to play the “rarest vision” for our screens, borrowing a line from Shakespeare. this Available for viewing online Once a day from March 20 to Friday.

“It’s part of our ongoing engagement with this brave new world,” said Gregory Doran, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 2016, the theater’s production of “The Tempest” used live motion-capture technology to create a 3-D digital avatar that was projected above the stage.

The difference this time is that virtually everything in the play – the actors and their surroundings – will be presented virtually.

A cast of seven will perform in a specially constructed studio in Portsmouth, southern England, with a Lycra motion-capture suit worn with sensors. They will be surrounded by a 360-degree camera rig, made up of 47 cameras, with each movement almost instantly rendered by digital avatars, relayed to viewers through the stream. These magical figures run radically through computer-generated woodland, and the action is narrated by Australian singer-songwriter Nick Cave in hoarse vocals as the voice of the forest.

For viewers watching at home, virtual fairies roaming through the digital forest will look more like a video game or CGI blockbuster than your average Royal Shakespeare Company show. But the performances are given live and in real time. Each night’s performance will be unique.

With its running time and a very small cast of characters, “Dream” is not a full-scale production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; Rather, it is inspired by a narrative, which focuses on the puck and the fairies. But don’t expect any cute digital wings: these are the fundamental, mysterious forces of nature.

Marshmallow Leisure Festival, an art collective working with virtual, mixed and augmented reality, has created digital avatars for actors to soar from the natural world. The puck is made of pebbles and stones, while the fairies of Titania are made of kite wings, silbuttons, earth or roots. Fairies are shape-shifters who come to the screen as recognizable humans and animals, and grow or shrink so that they are small enough to “creep into the crawling cup”, as the puck puts it.

“It’s a form of puppetry,” said Sarah Ellis, director of digital development for the Royal Shakespeare Company. “They survive when they breathe, and how they breathe through the living actor.”

Software that drives performance, called Unreal Engine, is used in the video game industry and is behind popular titles such as “Gears of War” and “Fortnite”. Since 2013, the company developing it has been venturing out to create interactive 3-D content with equipment for Epic Games, film and TV, and, for live events such as concerts, museum exhibitions and theater productions Is growing rapidly.

Layering tech with live performance, and instantly relaying it to thousands of devices via a web device, is an experiment for both Epic Games and the Royal Shakespeare Company. And then there is the interactive component.

More than 2,000 audience members can be part of the show for each performance, and will be invited to guide Puck through the woods. Onscreen, the chosen audience will appear as a cloud of small fireflies: using their mouse, trackpad, or finger on the screen of the smart device, they will be able to move their firefly around the screen, and Puck will be led by them. Virtual location will follow.

“Without the firefly – the audience – the puck can’t go anywhere,” said EM Williams, who plays the role. “The audience has too much fuel, energy, the show.”

In a traditional stage production, “Take” rehearsals come last, followed by weeks of work by actors on character and narrative. For “Dream”, the process began with fittings for motion-capture suits, so that players could check their movements. Their digital avatars were mirrored on giant LED screens around the studio to orient artists within the virtual environment.

“It looks 3-D, like it’s coming off the screen sometimes,” Williams said of the computer-generated wilderness. “Many times when I touch it, I hope to feel it. It is the veil between the technological world and the real world. “

The Royal Shakespeare Company has long been seen as the bastion of traditional British theater: reverence for text and poetry driven by great actors. Did the company anticipate any resistance to its high-tech, experimental approach? Many reviewers stated that its speed-grip was a “Tempest” gimmick.

“There will definitely be some criticism,” said Doran, the company’s artistic director. But, he said he hopes “Dream” can attract a traditional theater audience as well as the audience with the technology.

Furthermore, Shakespeare’s talent means that his plays can take on all the new inventions that have been thrown at him. “It’s similar to the experimental production of any of these plays,” Doran said. “Shakespeare is strong: he will still be there.”

Royal Shakespeare Company, presented online from 12–20 March; dream.online.

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