It seems like a few years now that people have been saying virtual reality is the future of theatre. Yep, you read that right – plastic headsets and projectors virtual reality. Sounds exciting, right? Or maybe something in the opposite direction? With this new media, and its huge range of possibilities, threatening to reinvent theatre as we know it, I thought it was probably about time I found a production in which to experience it.
Perhaps it takes a much bigger budget than this one man show allows to carry off well.
The play sees a lone performer take to the stage decked out in several little lights which, as he proudly explains, correspond to the cameras dotted around the space. These cameras use the lights to track his movements and replicate them in the virtual reality space which is either witnessed in 3D by a single volunteer at a time through their headset, or the audience as a whole on the large screens at the front. Admittedly, it is pretty impressive initially to see the actor/writer transposed onto the animated characters, and into their world – yet still controlling it from ours – but once this effect wears off, there isn't a lot to praise.
Unfortunately it seems like this is a case of a good idea being let down by its realisation, because the idea in itself isn't bad (a performer telling a redemptive story of a man in denial of his father's illness forces him to face up to his own difficulties), there are too many decisions which let it down. For instance, where I am sure the numerous moments at which character motivation and metaphors within the story are intricately explained were meant to edgy and creative, they rob it of all its subtlety, and the audience of all its agency.
In truth, however, the main problem is the technology itself: in order to explain to each and every volunteer what is going to happen whilst they have the headset on, and presumably how to stay safe during it, the audience is pretty much left to fend for themselves, with only a little soft music to pass the time; the actual animation looks really cheap and primitive compared to the artistry we're all used to thanks to cinema screens, so the very flat looking characters lose humanity and emotion; the silliness of the blinking lights, chunky gloves and moon boots which the performer has to wear seriously undermines his commendable and otherwise pretty believable attempts at poignancy. In the show I saw, the projector at one point shut down and had to be rebooted, like a poor piece of school equipment, while the audio carried on, out of sync.
I wonder if the technology is still not quite developed enough to make the transition smoothly into performance art. Or if perhaps it takes a much bigger budget than this one man show allows to carry off well. Either way, in this context, it doesn't quite work, and the virtual reality element not working sadly corrupts the whole show.