Leading Shakespeare into the digital forest

In the wake of a new virtual and digital interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the RSC and Marshmallow Laser Feast, director Robin McNicholas discusses the challenges of recreating theatre magic in a game engine and the immersive future that awaits us all

It’s been a difficult 12 months for theatres and performers, with Covid shutting venues and putting shows on hold. But while the arts and cultural sector has faced huge challenges, there have been a few promising green shoots that point to a more digital, accessible and international future for the industry.

Dream, a new take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummmer Night’s Dream, is one example of this. Blending together motion capture, live performance, virtual reality and online interactivity, the 50-minute show – which is a collaboration between the Royal Shakespeare Company, UK studio Marshmallow Laser Feast (MLF), Manchester International Festival and Philharmonia Orchestra – offers a vision of a new hybrid form of theatre.

Streamed to viewers around the world, it centres on the character of Puck, played by EM Williams, and the forest the play takes place in. But instead of set design and scenery, the woods are a virtual world of trees and greenery, strung with fireflies and inhabited by impossible creatures.

The show, which is online from 12 to 20 March, was originally intended to be a real-life performance alongside an online element, but according to Robin McNicholas – director of Dream as well as MLF – it was shelved shortly before the first UK lockdown hit. Although grieving for the lost event, McNicholas says the creative team quickly regrouped to try and understand how to take the research and development work they’d already done into a “digital pivot”.