Somnai. Set by Alice Helps and Julie Belinda Landau
I walked into Somnai with no expectations; I was a virtual reality virgin and my experience with immersive theatre was limited to say the least. Upon arrival, I was greeted with a nightgown, socks, a digital watch, a hospital band and received a 360 degree scan of my head. I thankfully hadn’t read the website’s “may cause acute death” warning beforehand as that would have dissuaded my anxious mind from attending. The truth is that within the first five minutes I had become a lucid dream-convert. I had sold my soul to the Sandman, or rather Somnai, the pixie-like AI dream guide that proceeded to direct me through my most memorable theatrical experience to date.
Somnai is the debut production of dotdotdot, a new London-based entertainment company that combines live performance with multi-sensory elements and immersive technologies. Spread across a 20,000 square foot warehouse in Clerkenwell, Somnai is a curated interactive experience that leads you through the various stages of dreaming. Conceptualised and executed by experts across set design and digital technology, and creative directed by Connie Harrison, Somnai is the closest you will get to – literally – having your dreams come true.
The production is a rabbit hole of fantastical occurrences, from midnight-blue velvety rooms and life-sized teddy bears to white, misty spaces with hanging chairs. A particular highlight saw my group put on VR goggles which transported us through a string of surreal scenarios; post-apocalyptic lava-ridden landscapes and remarkable underwater worlds unfolded in front of our eyes. The physical set was crafted to complement our virtual realities, allowing us to reach out after visual features only to feel textured surfaces. Relevant smells had even been recreated with the help of a perfumery.
This seamless fusion of set design and tech is core to the production’s success. “When you first start working with VR you think your imagination is the limit," Myra Appaneh, Somnai’s creative lead tells me. “But there are, of course, technological parameters. It’s important to understand these limits and perceive them as new opportunities to approach similar ideas in the unexpected ways that tech can facilitate.” Despite the narrative difficulties that arise from working across genres, Somnai’s storyline is strengthened by these unpredictable interdisciplinary synergies.
The harmony is achieved in part through repeated motifs that are mirrored across virtual and actual realities. A large, sand-coloured Hypnos sculpture, for example, initially appears in the first room only to subsequently be recreated in tech-form in a series of planetarium-like projections. Geese appear both in a flying simulation scene and, later on, in a “real” nightmarish horror house. This sequence combining the physical and digital subtly blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction.
Somnai is a design triumph. Its powerful fusion of technical and artistic expertise peels away layer after layer of reality while still creating a coherent, thought-provoking and emotionally-engaging narrative. I may have entered the production with no expectations, but my hopes for dotdotdot’s next show are already beginning to build.