This theatrical thriller at Melbourne Festival mashes up live performance and virtual reality
Taking a technological leap of faith can pay huge dividends, or it can lead to disaster. For every Avatar, there's a Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
Frogman comes from UK company Curious Directive and makes extensive use of virtual reality. The play takes place over two time periods: the present day, when Meera, a coral expert, is giving evidence to a murder detective, and 1995, when Meera was an 11-year-old who might or might not know more than she's telling about the disappearance and possible murder of a neighbour.
The present-day scenes are live theatre, with adult Meera alone on stage, answering the questions of an unseen detective. The past scenes are in virtual reality, with lighting and visual queues telling the audience when to put on their VR headsets to dive into the past.
Dive is the apt word here, as the story takes place in Queensland, with the Great Barrier Reef a major character. Some of the virtual reality scenes were filmed underwater, and it is genuinely thrilling – if somewhat vertigo-inducing – to be swimming alongside the divers, seeing fish, coral and clues in 360 degrees. But most of the action takes place in 11-year-old Meera's bedroom, with the audience able to turn to see each child actor as they are talking.
Even when it's working perfectly (and it sometimes wasn't – audience members put up their hands when the video feed cut out, and assistants came rushing in to sort out the technology) the virtual reality scenes did not feel real and immersive, but rather fuzzy and disjointed. It looked more like 1990s-era TV than cutting-edge technology, thus cutting the audience off from the realness and rawness that makes live theatre thrilling.
Director Jack Lowe also does not make full use of the virtual reality medium. Although the underwater scenes were beautiful, other scenes that were set outside were filmed inside Meera's bedroom set. That works in theatre, with the audience happy to suspend disbelief and supply the missing elements, but it doesn't work in video, especially in video that also includes scenes of real underwater dives. The vast majority of the VR scenes could have been more effectively presented live on stage, without the headaches – technological and somatic – that come with cumbersome headsets.
Frogman is a creative, ambitious work that seeks to use new technology to enhance the theatrical experience, but its reach exceeds its grasp.