Note – while not containing any actual spoilers, this article will discuss elements inside SOMNAI. If you want to go in completely blind, we recommend that you do not read on.
Be more. That was the promise Somnai offered. In ninety minutes, we would be able to access our hidden potential, dream lucidly, and control our subconscious mind at will. Tantalising indeed, and we wasted no time booking into what they called SLEEP™. A huge promise, so, when halfway through we started to feel like we were participating in a mediocre VR tech demo, we were more than a little disappointed.
The experience started off on the right foot, as clean, minimalistic scenes punctuated the idea of being in a futuristic sleep facility. Donned in a robe and cosy socks, the beginning of Somnai felt very complete, with a mysterious guide inviting us to go deeper, to sink into our slumber. They did an amazing job of making you feel relaxed, even with the thought of it all going wrong at some point itching in the back of your mind. Comfortable pillows, soft, whispered voices, calming imagery, it all led to our minds wandering into a susceptible state, ready for whatever our dreams would reveal.
It’s such a huge shame that as soon as the VR elements are introduced, Somnai’s carefully constructed feeling of peace and calm is shattered, and not in the way I had been hoping for. For anyone who has ever touched a VR headset, these segments were pretty cliché and already slightly antiquated. Besides that, they weren’t fitting to the experience they were aiming to present at all. Nothing substantial was added to the story – which remained somewhat confusing for the entirety of the run. The ability to dream lucidly is a very big promise, and when this is realised by walking through a number of different, glitchy landscapes, with your guide enticing you to touch your surroundings while for the better part you are grasping at thin air, bumping into other participants, high expectations crumble very, very quickly.
High expectations, that is something Somnai managed to create with ease. It’s a shame their marketing campaign was a lot more interesting than the actual experience, and weirdly unconnected to the show. It was a showcase for fairly mediocre VR experiences, connected through a muddled story that left us scratching our heads. In the second half of the show, a choice is introduced, giving group members access to different paths, but the reason for that choice to be there in the first place seemed just because the designers wanted there to be branching paths. Equally confusing were the consequences of that choice, and at least for us, our understanding of what was going on just shattered more and more. The endings vary from person to person as well, but again, why each of us got the ending we did seemed unconnected to the whole. I guess all of this can be defended by arguing that this segment was based on dream logic, but the whole just felt very off.
I did enjoy the sections that were led by actors. These were very competent, they oozed a sense of mystery, and it’s a huge shame there wasn’t any more of this. They favoured tech over actor based interaction, and it killed the immersion. After a promising start, I was led from VR demo to VR demo, and the very act of putting on those goggles immediately removes any idea that you might actually be dreaming lucidly – far from the ‘layered reality experience’ that was promised. If anyone wants to implement technology in a piece of theatre, it needs to be done seamlessly, otherwise it just detracts from the experience – and that is exactly what happened in Somnai.
I guess this is what sums up Somnai – a missed opportunity. They took a subject that I think is compelling and intriguing. They had a great venue, and while minimalistic, especially the first few scenes and the very last room had superb theming. The premise of the show was expertly set up. Their acting talent was on point, but underused. There was just so much more that could have been done, and we left in a state of confusion that rapidly fell into disappointment. Somnai built its entire experience around a technological gimmick and forgot about substance. The show absolutely had its moments, but in the end, it lacked a soul, and it failed to connect with me. I never felt like I was dreaming. But, at least I got a pair of socks out of it.