Perched on a toilet that’s apparently been belching out neon nuclear waste, I look around me at the massive talking cat, the gloriously bountiful and bright flora and the flashing stars. It’s like being at the theatre, but falling down the stairs, on acid.
Of course, it isn’t really like that at all. No one in their right mind would dare describe anything as being like anything “on acid”, least of all another Oculus Rift installation. Over the course of this year I’ve used that technology to find my way out of a coffin, to navigate a lonely island, escape children at the Carsten Holler show and to wander a spectacular maze (thanks Jon Rafman, you win) but time it’s at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank. The piece forms part of a small exhibition in the building that accompanies the musical wonder.land, an Alice in Wonderland-inspired show by Moira Biuffini and Rufus Norris, with a sublime score by Blur frontman Damon Albarn..
The _enter wonder.land _ exhibition is spread across a lobby, and is certainly a sweet, fun little experience that navigates the still-tense relationship that art has with tech. Bearing in mind the National Theatre’s hugely broad remit, catering for nans, toddlers and everyone in between, it does an excellent job of making tech and set design enjoyable and accessible, and paves the way for experiential spaces in theatre that work both before or after seeing the show, and independently of it.
But as with so much art that gets overexcited about tech developments and then stutters with the reality of using them, much of the work seems to be there simply because it can be. It’s well done, but there’s little purpose – one large wall lets users take a picture of themselves (a “selfie,” in modern parlance) but with a cat head replacing their own face. Another lets you create your own avatar, based on body parts from characters in the show, as I realised only having seen it afterwards. They’re not the most forward thinking of innovations, but perhaps it’s wrong to criticise these things and view them through an “art exhibition” lens – they are fun, they are very simple to use, and they do add an extra layer to the musical. But perhaps at this stage they’re not too sure why.
The Oculus Rift piece, fabulous wonder.land, is a music video of sorts, and while boundary-pushing, it’s not entirely snag-free. Aside from the initial Enter the Void, 2CB-engulfed-into-another-universe-type moment, while it’s mesmerising the experience doesn’t feel like it adds a whole lot to the cat, or the song, that you couldn’t get from a screen. Perhaps i need to adjust the headset, or perhaps I need to suspend my disbelief a little more.
Saying that, it’s exciting to see the possibilities of design and digital explored like this in the often rather traditional world of theatre, and this is no more true than in the play itself. The digital projections and set design, created by Rae Smith, are spectacular. Katrina Lindsay designed the costumes, which with their geometric forms and unnerving angles are redolent of designs for Bauhaus theatre performances or the creations of artists like Kazemir Malevich for avant garde theatre. They’re visually stunning, and add a new dimension to the narrative.
The story itself is something of a PSHE lesson with songs, detailing the life of schoolgirl Ally and how she escapes her real-world problems with online fantasies where she can be someone else. This world is hijacked by a real-life nemesis, and chaos ensues, along with revelations about the importance of IRL relationships, love, etc etc.
It brings us breaking news about teens’ over-reliance on technology, the dangers of internet gambling, trolling and the incredibly blurred boundaries between our online and offline worlds. However, it’s done very very well, and is thoroughly captivating. In places you do shudder as the tick-list of “zeitgeist” things rolls out in front of you – hoverboards, onesies, selfie sticks, selfies, live-streaming, friend requests – they all trundle out like an accountant uncle trying to converse with a sullen adolescent nephew at a wedding. That must be the problem with trying to write about tech or the modern world– as soon as you do, its signifiers are either lame or obsolete.
Maybe this doesn’t matter when it looks so bloody good. The wonders the production weaves with the behind the scenes technology and structural set design is truly magical, creating depth and otherworldliness. The score is brilliant and brave, and in places, very trademark Albarn (I’m almost certain Sunday Sunday, from Blur’s Modern Life is Rubbish made a little appearance). As we leave the theatre at the end, I overhear a boy of about 13 turn around to his mum. “I liked the live-streaming bit, but I think the real question is ‘would he have had a good enough data connection?’”. ‘Suspend your disbelief, darling,” the mother replied. I have a feeling this is an important coda to the whole experience, but I’m not too sure why.
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