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  • Writer's pictureDavid Taylor

Recovering 18th-century theatre's WOW factor

A new AR smartphone app - A Stage in Time - allows users to step into full-scale sets from one of the 18th century's most spectacular pantomimes.

Restoration and eighteenth-century theatre was a theatre of spectacle. With the return of public theatre in 1660 came the arrival of moveable scenery and by 1671 London had its first "machine house" in Dorset Garden Theatre: that is, a playhouse purpose built for spectacular entertainment, complete with flying machine, trap doors, and other devices that could create lavish visual effects. Many of the new kinds of drama that emerged in Britain over the century that followed - heroic drama, opera, semi-opera, pantomime - were defined in large part by their spectacular, multimedial form.

We can read eighteenth-century plays. And if we're lucky, we can perform them or watch performances of them. This is the kind of recovery or 'reactivation' work that the R/18 Collective is committed to. But what of the elaborate, visual dimensions of the period's theatre? How can this be revived or reconstructed?

It's this question that has driven my collaboration with Arcade Ltd, who specialize in using augmented reality to create immerse, three-dimensional stories. Over the past year, we've worked together to reconstruct digitally three sets from the pantomime Omai, or A Trip Around the World, written by John O’Keeffe and designed by pioneering scenographer Philip James de Loutherbourg. It premiered at Covent Garden Theatre (on the site of what is now the Royal Opera House) in December 1785. Then, as now, pantomime was associated especially with Christmas!

Maquette of the Kensington Garden Scene, by De Loutherbourg. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Visual sources for 18th-century theatre are fairly scarce and set models are especially rare. But the Victoria & Albert Museum hold three of De Loutherbourg's maquettes for Omai: for scenes set in Kensington Gardens, on a beach, and in a jourt in the Kamchatka Peninsula. High-resolution photographs of the components of these maquettes provided the basis for our digital reconstruction of the sets. AR allows users of our app - A Stage in Time - to step into these sets and experience them at full scale.

To download the app, search "A Stage in Time" on Apple's App Store or Google Play. You'll also find a video fly-through of the reconstruction below.

As is suggested by the pantomime’s subtitle – A Trip Around the WorldOmai sought to transport audiences to far-flung corners of the globe in a dizzyingly rapid-fire sequence of scenes. In the 18th century, theatre offered audiences the pleasures of vicarious travel.

But this was also a period of empire, and the British stage was a powerful mechanism in creating and sustaining the fantasy of British supremacy, racially and culturally. The titular protagonist of Omai is based on a real person: Mai, a man from Ra'iatea in the South Pacific. He was taken from Polynesia to London by Captain Cook in 1774. Once in Britain, Mai became a celebrity and curiosity – an example of what was called a "noble savage".

In the pantomime, Mai’s story becomes part of a lavish celebration of British imperial power and the spectacle of racial difference. The play ends with Omai marrying Londina (symbol of Britain), a procession of British actors dressed as the indigenous peoples of the South Pacific and Asia, and finally a "grand painting" showing the apotheosis of Captain Cook. The history of British theatre, Omai reminds us, is also the history of empire and racism.

De Loutherbourg's sets aimed at a high level of accuracy. We know that he consulted John Webber, the artist who accompanied Captain Cook on his third Pacific expedition. Comparison of De Loutherbourg's set for the jourt in the Kamchatka Peninsula with Webber's drawings show just how closely he attempted to reproduce them on stage.

L: John Webber, ‘Inside of a House in Oonalashka’. © The Trustees of the British Museum. R: Maquette of Jourt in Kamchatka Penninsula Scene, by De Loutherbourg. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Users of the app are thus stepping into the history of spectacular theatre - the forerunner of the blockbuster shows of today's West End and Broadway. They are also stepping into the history of empire: a history in which the theatre, with its ability to represent the elsewhere and the other in highly elaborate ways, played a vital role.

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