Culturally, we’re in a weird place with VR technology. Virtual Reality has been a staple of science fiction stories since the fifties and as a result, along with flying cars, cryogenic freezing and sex robots (depressingly for civilisation, sex robots seem to be the technology that is advancing the fastest), there is a certain expectation that science-fiction grade VR is a ‘when’ rather than an ‘if’. Great strides have been made with projects like the Oculus Rift, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that in a few decades the kind of ‘groundbreaking’ VR materials that are available now (for grotesquely high prices) will be looked back on with the amused contempt we reserve for the cheap CGI of b-movie dreck of Megashark Vs Giant Octopus or Sharknado (the future will presumably also justifiably question why so much early 21st century entertainment revolved around badly animated sharks). VR remains a rich man’s toy, with companies and consumers wary of making the plunge out of the fear that you’ll be springing hundreds of pounds for the modern equivalent of a Betamax player.
It is for this reason that Somnai, Somnai, an immersive theatre experience put together by dotdotdot should be commended for taking the plunge. Having spent unthinkable thousands on portable VR equipment, Somnai, Somnai attempts to marry Punchdrunk/Secret Cinema style immersive theatre (where the audience is physically involved in the narrative, generally with a large set ranging over different floors which the audience will explore either by following actors or through their own initiative) with the effectively infinite possibilities offered by VR technology. This is an exciting and admirable ambition and one which, if done correctly, would help both kickstart the (let’s face it) slightly played out immersive theatre phenomenon (been chased down one corridor by a jobbing actor whose raided a dressing up box, been chased down ‘em all) along with, more excitingly, demonstrating practical uses for VR beyond its current state of being functionally useless for anyone but high-end gaming stereotypes; the kind of flash of genuine excitement the technology desperately needs. Sadly Somnai, Somnai is not that flash of excitement, genuine or otherwise.
The play uses the (actually pretty intriguing) conceit that the audience are patients at a slightly sinister ‘sleep clinic’ that will via ill-defined means allow you to dream lucidly. The audience are clad in dressing gowns and bed socks and split into groups of six, which has the potentially unintentional overtones of being part of a surrealist team building exercise. Once dressing gown-clad you are guided through a series of yogic type exercises to prepare to ‘dream’ by a mildly inhuman guide (who alternates between robotic, alien and snidely corporate seemingly randomly) before you first strap on the VR headsets (referred to as ‘sleep masks’) and away you go.
Flying over the clouds complete with rushing winds/mild breezes and simulated movements, exploring glittering forests where the VR is mapped out so you can touch the fantastical mushrooms in front of you gives a hint of the kind of artistic success Somnai, Somnai could have achieved, but it’s all somehow too curated. Your guide (who has something of a thankless task as effectively the sole actor in the performance) is merciless at keeping things moving (a new six begin the show every 15 minutes and as a result there is a fair amount of killing time in a variety of stark white waiting rooms as the staff frantically clear the area ahead of you) and the ‘plot’ is simultaneously too invasive and too elliptical, to the point where at one point I was trapped in a room by myself with no sense of whether I simply didn’t realise what I was supposed to be doing or something had gone horribly wrong. In addition to the 90 minute experience, probably only 15 minutes of it genuinely involves the VR (which also does not feel like the most top end tech on the market), which certainly feels like something of a short change.
Somnai, Somnai is a frustrating experience because of the moments where you can see the groundbreaking piece of theatre that it was trying to be (and which it occasionally achieves before being subsumed again by its limitations). To call it a noble failure would be inaccurate however as, considering its status as potentially marking the jump off point for an entirely new form of immersive theatre, it contains moments of the genuinely new frisson that other (and better) theatre would kill for. However at a notably pricey £50 a head (along with the ‘de rigeur’ exit into an expensive themed cocktail bar) it’s up to the individual to work out if it’s worth it. Put it this way, cinema might forever have been changed by Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat in 1895, but you wouldn’t pay to see it now.