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A Midsummer Night's Dream
Published on Tuesday, 18 August 2009

This is the kind of show some people would five-star out of habit: produced by the Beijing Film Academy; featuring technology from the Olympic opening ceremony; incorporating traditional martial arts and a modern high-tech theme. A re-telling of A Midsummer Night's Dream as a virtual-reality computer game, it seems so sure-fire a winner that if it disappoints, you might wonder if the fault's with you. But I'm not too proud to tell you the truth; and the truth is, I just didn't understand.

I didn't understand the purpose of the glowing gizmos which Puck - re-imagined as a hacker - deployed into the virtual-reality world. I didn't understand why the "computer game" we were watching sometimes crashed and froze. I didn't understand why Titania became suddenly all-powerful, then just as suddenly passed out - I really didn't understand that bit. And this is from someone with a good knowledge of the Shakespeare original: if you don't know the story well, you'll be completely lost for most of the time.

I also didn't understand why there was a spider knitting a scarf, but that was kind-of cool anyway. The spider was one of numerous animations inspired by computer games and projected onto the walls of the McEwan Hall, where they formed a constantly-shifting backdrop to the play. The Hall looked beautiful, I have to say: the lighting was lovely and so well-designed, picking out details of the frescos and pipe organ which somehow complemented Shakespeare's plot. The very best of the projections comes right at the end, but I won't spoil the surprise by describing it to you.

Of course, the fact that I paid so much attention to the animations tells you a bit about my engagement with what was on stage; and here we come to the nub of the problem. Among all that graphic detail, they hadn't found room for the one projection I most wanted to see - supertitles translating the spoken Chinese. To be fair, parts were spoken in English and there was an English-language summary on each seat, but too often the wit and mastery I'm sure was on display was entirely lost on me.

It's a shame, because there were some aspects of the performance I could recognize and admire. The acting was expressive, and very well-rehearsed, right down to the precisely choreographed curtain-call. There were some nice moments of physical comedy - Titania's bewitchment by the love potion is a particular highlight - and I enjoyed the buffoonery of the travelling players as they prepare for that famous play-within-a-play. And the large Chinese contingent in the audience, who understood the language and, perhaps, a few more cultural references, seemed impressed and excited by what they'd seen.

The idea of using a virtual-reality world to explain the gaping holes in Shakespeare's plot is unquestionably a clever one; and the projections, illuminated costumes and acrobatic sequences were a treat for the eyes. Sadly, though, I left dissatisfied and perplexed. I'd hoped to enjoy an intriguing cultural fusion, but in the end, I found the complex concept combined with the language barrier just too great an obstacle to overcome.

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