Contains spoilers: don’t read this if you have tickets to Somnai!
By Miels and Tia
My cringe radar is very sensitive. People singing whilst making eye contact with me, certain situations at weddings (particularly at my own), group sing-alongs, anything to do with Strictly or The X Factor – it doesn’t take much for me to want the floor to swallow me up. It stems from being a kid at Panto, and spending the final moments of the show praying that I wasn’t picked out to go onstage. I could blame it on the British half of me, but basically, I’m just awkward. So, ‘immersive, virtual reality theatre’ is pretty high up there on my list of potential anxiety-inducing experiences.
SOMNAI: In an unassuming building in Clerkenwell, Tia and I are given fitbits and ‘patient IDs’, and directed into a booth to join a group of four others – one of the group is a guy from a band. Tia and I pretend not to recognise him. We self-consciously compare heart rates until we’re called into a bright white room to have our ‘minds scanned’. We are instructed to put on bath robes and slipper socks, and to form an orderly line…
The doors open to a dark room: a pale woman in an ethereal smock lies on the floor with her eyes closed. We file in and perch awkwardly around her. Her eyes pop open and she asks us questions in a weird, other-worldly voice. (Audience participation: I’ve already hit level 7 on the cringe scale, I can’t even bring myself to look at the cool guy from the cool band…) What would we buy if we had all the money in the world? (Tia would buy dogs; Cool Guy from the Cool Band would go on more holidays) This is all way too am-dram for me, and Ethereal Lady keeps looking at me while she’s talking which is making me want to laugh. I realise I’m standing very defensively, my robe perched awkwardly across my shoulders as if I’m just too nonchalant to get stuck in (it’s just really stuffy in here). The lights flick to pitch black, and I can feel my pupils dilate to try to see through the dark. When the lights flash back on, Ethereal Lady is right next to me. I blast out an uncomfortable laugh. She tells me to follow her.
We are in a room sitting next to a giant teddy while Ethereal Lady reads us a bedtime story (weird). Then she ushers us into a dark circular room with a low ceiling and black padded floor; we have to crawl in. We are instructed to lie down on our backs with our feet in the middle, eyes looking up at the ceiling. I can’t take the awkwardness of having to touch feet with people I don’t know, so I contort myself, spaghetti-like, to avoid any contact, begging myself not to go all claustrophobic and weird. Luckily, I’m distracted when the ceiling opens, revealing a Planetarium-style dome which submerges us into a full-on light show of trippy visuals. It’s cool – nothing I haven’t seen at a Disclosure gig, but fun nonetheless.
Ethereal Lady moves us on and into a bright white circular room, filled with theatrical smoke (The last time I was in a steam room, I fainted. Please god don’t faint in here). White sheets of tulle hang from the ceiling, and between each are six white, swinging chairs. We are instructed to kneel across the backs of them, and to put on our Virtual Reality headsets: ‘Sleep Masks’.
I’m plunged into VR, flying above skyscrapers – there’s a breeze across my face, and the chair shifts and rocks according to whatever I look at. I fly over a city, then over beautiful green countryside. I can see things in my peripheral vision too. Something moves in the corner of my eye and I realise I’m flying within a skein of Canada geese. I forget all my neuroses and scepticism and I feel more calm than I’ve felt in a while. I let myself believe that I am flying with a bunch of birds, and I move across the sea, towards an immense and beautiful sunset.
The sunset turns into a huge black hole, the water of the sea heads over a sheer drop off the edge of the earth. I realise I’m gripping onto the back of my chair, my brain reacting to the fear of plummeting and to the charade of flying tens of thousands of metres above the planet.
(Voice in my ears)
Where are you? There you are!
Ethereal Lady is back, bidding us toward a dark black room. Hanging from the ceiling are six backpacks and sleep masks. Once they are on, we are told to hold the hand of the person next to us. (Urgh, enforced hand-holding with strangers – cringe – especially as my hands are habitually clammy, poor stranger…)
Back into VR, and I’m immersed within infinite blue sky and clouds. It’s an agoraphobic’s nightmare, but it’s pretty liberating. I head towards a portal, still hand-in-clammy-hand with the stranger next to me, who has been transformed into a figure made up of tiny blue lights. We are now on a rickety rope bridge, suspended meters above a sheer drop. Every time my foot nearly misses the unstable panels of the bridge, my heart jumps with the fear I could fall. I have to remind myself that this is not real. But I actually really want this to be real because, once we are over the bridge, I’m propelled into an acid-trip of colour, of fluffy mushrooms and Avatar glows – you can touch things and feel them. Through another portal, and I’m underwater, on the ocean floor, the ground soft beneath my feet as I move past creatures and coral. I have to fight the paranoia that someone can actually see the reality of what I’m doing. I must look totally bonkers, shrinking into the corners of a blank, dark room – reaching out and touching things that aren’t there…
The Somnai experience is meant to simulate the sensation of lucid dreaming: a state in which the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming and able to control parts of their subconscious. Roaming through underwater mushroom worlds, fiery canyons and electric forests, you can almost believe that you are dreaming. Yet you have control, not over what the simulation will be, but the direction you take and your emotions towards it.
Bizarre doesn’t cover it and as we roam around the room holding hands, “take off your mask” is whispered in my ear. The trip takes a strange turn: I’ve been selected with another to attend a ‘special party’ set in an old Victorian hotel. Think The Others vibes, complete with long paisley corridors and paintings that move. Our host, pyjama-clad and ecstatic, leads us through a maze of corridors and rooms firing questions on magic tricks and rocking horses. The dream, already chilling, takes a sharp descent into nightmare territory. Strobe lights flash and screams overhead of “mummy’s coming!” We run along incessant corridors and eventually find solace in a deserted workshop.
In this dimly-lit workshop, our orders are to find a key. The key that will save our friends. As we search, CCTV screens shows our friends kneeling in a dark room as haunted figures dance along corridors. Time seems to be running out.
Out of nowhere, a door opens. We are led to a serene room where we join the rest of our group. We are told that to achieve greatness, we first must die. Ushered into a hospital room, we lie down on separate beds, and we are tucked into blankets by masked figures in white. With our Sleep Masks back on, we are back in VR and we are slowly being lowered, past buildings, trees and people, down into our apparent graves. Mourners peer down over us, mud is thrown upon us. Until… Awoken with a start, we are born again.
“Welcome to the Church they call Life. Sweet Dreams.”
Accompanied by the melodies of 80’s pop, we leave our hospital beds and arrive at the bar.
I’m a self-confessed luddite – being involved in People Who Do Things has been a tech revelation: I now know what a URL is. The worlds of gaming and virtual reality are lightyears away from mine. I have friends who work for some of the biggest game companies in the world; who talk about ‘gaming’ in real terms, of their neurological benefits, of the levels they’ve accomplished. Somnai has made me reflect on how self-important I can be – I like to think that the tangible pages of my books are bigger than all this tech stuff that I have no understanding of. It’s a stupid, regressive kind of snobbery. Already, things are way too advanced for me because of my reluctance to comprehend.
Somnai didn’t blow my mind in the way that an incredibly written play can, but I’d go back to fly with those geese in a heartbeat. And it has made me engage in the idea of VR, and the possibilities that it will lead to. For example, the University of Florida runs a VR For the Social Good Initiative. Previous projects have included allowing interior design students to experience their designs from a wheelchair, and giving Florida beach visitors the chance to experience the dangers faced by baby sea turtles. In the UK, Virtual Village VR is an immersive marketplace between charities and donors. Users can experience the circumstances of villagers and improve standards of living by virtually building wells, schools, hospitals; bringing things that feel very much “over there”, into our own worlds and experience. In-game donations go directly to the selected project. In Australia, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse have teamed up with Samsung to supply VR to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, to ease psychological stress. VR is also being used by Immersive Rehab to create interactive physiotherapy programmes that develop the efficiency of physical and neuro-rehabilitation; and by Alzheimer’s Research UK to put people in the shoes of someone living with dementia.
A highlight of Somnai was when, during the second VR experience, after taking off our masks, I was able to catch a glimpse of the flailing movements of our teammates as they floundered around the room, engrossed in their visual fantasy. And our Ethereal Lady, who’s eerie gaze and softly-spoken whisperings both entranced and disturbed. (Her name is Polly Waldron, expect big things).
Lucid dreaming therapy (LDT) has been used in treatment to reduce nightmare frequency – the sensation of being awake reduces the distressing content. Alongside exercises to help control these nightmares, LDT helps attain a marked improvement in sleep. Perhaps that was why we were only unsettled, and not scared. We knew it wasn’t real, no matter how believable it felt. But it was easy to imagine how this could be a traumatic nightmare. It ticked all the boxes, especially helplessness. But no, you don’t die in real life if you die in a dream. That horror is reserved exclusively for the exploits of TV and film.
Somnai is running until May 6th with DotDotDot at 2 Pear Tree St, London EC1V 3SB.