Virtual Reality – The Future of Immersive Theatre?

Immersive theatre appears to be everywhere at the moment. More venues, like London’s Bridge Theatre, use thrust stages, with the audience surrounding the action, to provide a ‘fully immersive experience’. This is what the Bridge Theatre’s website boasts when booking pit tickets. For their recent production of Julius Caesar, the audience became the citizens of Rome and were encouraged to cheer and wave flags, to show their support for Caesar. In their latest play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the audience are invited to join in a dance with the play’s characters. But, where do you draw the line between audience participation and immersive theatre? Can technology enhance this experience?

Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds Immersive Experience London Dotdotdot Virtual Reality Immersive Theatre
Virtual reality – The future of immersive theatre?

Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of The Worlds: The Immersive Experience demonstrates how new technology can be used to create multi-sensory immersion. This innovative, fully immersive experience combines theatre and actors with virtual reality, holograms, augmented reality, and other cutting-edge technology, plunging visitors inside the events depicted in H.G Wells’ novel and Jeff Wayne’s iconic album. It shows how virtual reality can be a game-changer, revolutionising the immersive theatrical experience.

Taking place across a vast, multi-level, 22,000 square-foot location in central London, this site specific theatrical experience is wholly immersive, placing the visitor in the midst of a Martian attack. Rather than just participating alongside the performance, the audience becomes actively involved within the plot, striving to survive the Martian invasion. In small groups of twelve, you become a part of a team, interacting with actors, before being immersed in virtual reality scenes of destruction and death.

Anybody familiar with Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds knows that survival involves enduring the cylinder crashing on Horsell Common, an attack by the Martian fighting machines on London, and trying to escape England in a boat, as the valiant warship Thunderchild protects refugees from being annihilated by the invaders. All this is played out to Wayne’s incredible soundtrack, whilst being guided by a virtual version of the story’s narrator, George.

Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds Immersive Experience London Dotdotdot Virtual Reality Immersive Theatre
Horsell Common and the Heat Ray. “A ray of heat leapt from man to man, and there was a bright glare as each was instantly turned to fire”.

The actors do a fantastic job of interacting with the group, and are all highly skilled in improvisation and ad-libbing. Invited into an observatory, Ogilvy, the astronomer is convinced that “The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one”, despite us being able to see a green missile from Mars through our telescopes. “Just a volcanic eruption”, he assures the group. When the Martian missile crashes nearby onto Horsell Common, he leads the group to the crash site, an impressive set. Snake-like tentacles emerge from the cylinder and superb lighting is used to depict the deadly Heat Ray. Holographic technology is used as Ogilvy is turned to flame in front of our eyes, and the group is forced to flee to safety. It is this combination of live theatre, lighting, and holographic visual effects that makes this experience entirely immersive.

The sheer horror of the Martian invasion is conveyed when the group is plunged into pitch blackness. There are few things more terrifying than being cast into utter darkness, particularly when you can hear the sounds of people screaming from the pit, and the Martian fighting machines getting closer. The experience becomes so immersive that it is genuinely frightening, as you listen to the Martians closing in around you. This is before you even wear the virtual reality headsets!

Donning the headset, the group becomes transformed into Victorian citizens, which is a novelty idea, although a little glitchy at times. The movements of your fellow travellers are fairly static and they stand rigid, without blinking. There isn’t much time to linger on the issue though, as you are transported onto a bridge alongside artillery gunners, who are shooting at a Martian fighting machine across the river. The virtual reality glitches if you look down at the bridge, but is simply stunning when witnessing the artillery firing shells at the Martian invaders. “Bows and arrows against the lightning”.

The characters within the virtual reality scenes all look realistic due to the fact that they are professional actors, whose pieces have been pre-recorded and digitalised. Tom Brittney plays George and Anne-Marie Wayne is Carrie. Parson Nathaniel and Beth are also recorded, virtual characters, with Carrie Hope Fletcher playing Beth.

As you flee down London streets, Martian fighting machines tower overhead, incinerating everything with their deathly heat ray. Sadly, the only thing missing is some actual heat when this happens, however I am sure there must be some health and safety issues regarding fire within close proximity to people wearing virtual reality headsets. Despite this, being in the thick of the action, with Martians destroying buildings around you is exhilarating. An adrenaline pumping experience, it is difficult not to get caught up in the excitement.

Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds Immersive Experience London Dotdotdot Virtual Reality Immersive Theatre
“Farewell Thunderchild”.

The finest part of this immersive experience is when embarking on boats down the Thames, to get safe passage out of England across the sea. Victorian London is exquisitely rendered, and the familiar landmarks of the Houses of Parliament, St Paul’s, and Big Ben are all there. This nautical journey through 19th Century London is visually stunning, perfectly depicting the horrifying scenes of Jeff Wayne’s album:

“We saw huge tripods wading up the Thames, cutting through bridges as though they were paper – Waterloo Bridge, Westminster Bridge… One appeared above Big Ben!”

Mirroring the movement of the boats, and being sprayed by water, the immersive experience becomes like a 4D theme park ride. At sea, the boats are rocked by huge waves as the valiant warship Thunderchild protects your group from the alien invaders.

There is a warning when booking the experience that it is not suitable for people who suffer from motion sickness, and it is easy to see why. You don’t distantly watch the Martians destroy the steamboats full of refugees, like in the book and album. Instead, you are in the middle of a  sea battle, being attacked by the fighting machines. Looking around, there are several Martian machines being bombarded by artillery fire from the Thunderchild warship. Thrilling, and glitch-free, this is the pinnacle of immersive theatre, where you are part of the action, rather than just being a passive observer.

Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds Immersive Experience London Dotdotdot Virtual Reality Immersive Theatre
“Slowly from the ashes, a phoenix will arise, in a Brave New World. With just a handful of men, we’ll start all over again”

By combining this technology with theatre, this is an immersive experience unlike any other. Throughout, you interact with the actors, binding a soldier’s wound, paying for passage out of England, even kneeling to pray in Parson Nathaniel’s churchyard. Being interrogated by the Artillery Man highlights the wholly immersive nature of this experience. His trust in mankind is fragile after experiencing so much death and destruction, and he doesn’t trust the group. Dirty, bloodied and bruised, Samuel Lane cuts an intimidating figure as the Artillery Man, making you wonder whether he is friend or foe. Thankfully, it becomes apparent that he will help, after showing his plans for a “Brave New World” through virtual reality.

Any fan of The War of the Worlds will be in their element throughout this experience, soaking up each element and loving every moment. But even if you haven’t heard the album or read the book, its unique combination of theatre and virtual reality is truly thrilling. A entirely immersive experience has been created that is genuinely terrifying at times, demonstrating how technology can be used to enhance the theatrical experience.

If using virtual reality is the future of immersive theatre, then it certainly looks like a promising one!

Due to popular demand, Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds: The Immersive Experience has been extended into January. You can visit DotDotDot’s website for further information, or to book tickets.

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