At some point, virtual reality will transform theatre and live performance. How, and to what extent, we don’t know. Maybe it will spawn new genres, maybe it will revolutionise traditional stagecraft in ways we can’t think of yet. In the meantime, we’re in the Pong phase. It feels like the future and it’s exciting to try your hand at it, but it’s early in development. Pioneers are playing with potential possibilities, and in time, what we have now will feel basic.
And so to WHIST, a mixed reality experience by Ashford-based dance company AΦE in the Milburn Bar of the Festival Theatre. Participants don virtual reality headsets to take part in an abstract, and largely inexplicable, game of choose-your-own-adventure. The headsets are triggered by real world objects – a broken table, a birdcage, a crack in the floor – to play 360 degree video clips, featuring a trio of performers engaging in mildly grotesque physical theatre. A typical scene involves the trio – Yen-Ching Lin, Robert Hayden, Tomislav English – sat round a table feasting on slabs of bloody meat, possibly organs, cackling as they do so. There’s often strange music or disembodied voices, as if Yoko Ono or latter day Scott Walker have run amok. Depending on what part of the scene you’re looking at, you’ll then be prompted to go find the next real world object for the next clip. In that way, there are over 70 different paths through the piece.
The idea is intriguing. The (virtual) reality is underwhelming. The extent to which you are “choosing” the next move isn’t always obvious. Scenes are non-linear, and often finish arbitrarily. You could be looking at a blank stretch of wall when the action changes, leaving you wondering what intention the system has discerned. The premise is that our subconscious is focusing our attention on certain aspects of the tableaux (Freud is mentioned in the show literature as an influence). But while the subconscious might be thinking about mothers or phalluses or whatever, the conscious mind is simply left thinking, “why is that man in pants wearing a giraffe mask?”
WHIST falls foul of a common fault of participatory pieces: asking too much too soon. Audiences don’t know the rules of engagement, but they’ve gone so far as to be wandering through a room of strangers in a headset. To then present them with a physical theatre piece that would be confusing enough in a traditional theatre format is alienating. You long for a Falconhoof to present you with a simple “go left / go right” choice, something that would give you a sense of agency.
In the final scene you’re given a number. Enter this in the show’s website and you’ll get a “reading” of the choices you’ve made. Even then, much remains mystifying. WHIST is a glimpse of the future, for sure, and aside from a steaming up of goggles and the occasional difficulty getting the clips to trigger, it passes without a hitch, but it’s an experiment to try, rather than a fully satisfying theatrical experience.