How do you simulate someone else’s dreams? That’s the struggle at the heart of Somnai – an experience that blends virtual reality and immersive theatre to try to give participants a sense of lucid dreaming. The problem was that at no point did I have unexpected sex with a minor celebrity my waking mind had previously shown no interest in (which happens in a surprising number of my actual dreams).
Dreams are so personal and so varied, that I have never, truly recognised Hollywood’s dreamscape tropes from my own. I don’t dream in patterns of colours or stars. When I fly in my dreams I don’t become a goose, I meet Lenny Henry (which, even on the obviously large budget here, would have been a stretch for the producers).
So, while Somnai comes close to achieving its ambitions, the technology and the personalisation aren’t quite close enough yet to make it live up to the hype of lucid dreaming. It felt closer to being an observer to Stanley Kubrick’s lucid dream.
Having offered that caveat, I would say that I enjoyed myself thoroughly throughout the experience. It was well produced, thoroughly entertaining and well managed. The dream guide was superb as she led us through a series of scenarios that illuminated all the dream tropes even if they didn’t match our own dreams. We flew, we swooped, we were chased through a nightmarish house by shadows. My emotions, excitement and interest were aroused throughout.
Somnai doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, but in many ways that is the most realistic dreamscape thing about it. Its inconsistency (is it a sleep clinic? A dreamscape? A treatise on the subconscious?) is that of a dream, where nothing makes sense and everything makes sense. So, you let it wash over you. You give yourself up to the dream, allow yourself to be placed in harnesses, chivvied to run along corridors, lie down next to total strangers.
There are a few staging problems that they could address. The long wait at the start doesn’t quite work. Firstly, you can hear the next stage quite clearly which sort of ruins it. Secondly, I think it is supposed to be getting you into a trancelike state, but I just got fidgety. That may say more about me than them, but productions like this have to take into account who their audiences are – not who they might like them to be.
The other key thing is that I would not be able to recommend this to anyone with vertigo. For some reason, the different areas you go through as part of the main VR experience are always depicted as taking a step off a cliff edge to nowhere. I don’t have vertigo and had to concentrate all my resources to put one foot in front of the other. Using this device once or twice would be fine, but I would probably want to mix it up a bit more.
If you do visit Somnai, make sure you factor in time to spend at the very impressive bar afterwards. The combination of dreamscape, organic and futuristic cocktails with food straight out of a Douglas Adams novel was incredibly impressive and the ambience was great. As you go through the experience in teams of six, you have space afterwards to bond with your group and discuss the experience together.
Somnai is a dream of a dream. Possibly an android’s dream of a dream. But it is no less impressive an experience for that. It will take you out of yourself, even if it can’t yet deliver you the control of your own dreamscape it almost promises.
Somnai is at 2 Pear Tree St, London EC1, until May 6. Tickets cost £50; dotdot.london