Theatre, Performance art
3 out of 5 stars
Visitors to Whist wear VR headsets
Photograph: Paul Plews

Don a VR headset and enter a Freudian nightmare staged by an innovative UK dance company

VR typically takes audiences to extraordinary places outside of everyday experience – above the clouds, into zombie war zones – but what if the journey was into your own unconscious? That’s the apparent mission of Whist, a VR experience from UK dance company AΦE, taking place inside Carriageworks’ Bay 19.

Limited to about a dozen participants each time, the one-hour experience involves wearing Samsung VR goggles and earphones and wandering through a (real-life) surreal landscape of items of furniture sinking into the floor. Each sculpture triggers a short VR film on your goggles.

These films feature three main performers playing out weird, Freud-influenced scenarios. (The sequences were devised with the help of psychoanalysts of the Freud Museum in Hampstead, London.) You may find yourself standing in the middle of a dinner table looking around at the guests as they tuck into a gory meal; spying on a young man writhing among piles of books; or being treated to a sinister lap dance.

There’s a David Lynchian quality to these VR films, with their symbolism of bird cages and masks, sexual domination, alter egos, and a smiling accordion player (yes! Accordions are creepy). The Gustave Courbet painting ‘The Origin of the World’ features prominently on a wall (if that doesn’t ring any bells, for heaven’s sake don’t Google it at work). At their best, the films offer the unnerving sense that your head is being messed with. Indeed, the things that you focus your attention on in one film determine what your next film will be. There are 76 different ‘pathways’ the experience can take, and at the end you are given a code that you can look up online to read your own ‘analysis’.    

On a purely technical level, the sculptures do not always trigger the films seamlessly, in which case assistants, who are on hand to ensure participants don’t bump into each other, can help you. These Freudian slip-ups detract somewhat from the immersiveness of the experience. Also, Time Out’s post-event online analysis did not offer any “aha” moments: apparently we are “sensitive to one of the most challenging of human emotions: jealousy”, but that’s more like a cold reading than a dream interpretation (who isn’t jealous occasionally?).

Quibbles aside, Whist entertains and intrigues, and it offers a tantalising glimpse of the future of theatre – even if it’s a future to which we may not have quite arrived.

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