Rock musical with ‘mind-bending’ cinematic effects comes to London

Cult LA theatre show Cages uses holographic avatars that blend seamlessly with real actors

Madeline sitting on a bench
Cages opens on 13 September at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, west London.

Avatars of human beings that are indistinguishable from the real thing have been created for a new “rock musical” with groundbreaking technology that could revolutionise live theatre.

The show, titled Cages, uses “mind-bending” special effects that can now achieve a theatre director’s wildest dreams. Digital characters will interact with an ensemble of seven live actors, appearing and disappearing instantaneously, suddenly filling the stage with a cast of hundreds or stretching a giant arm 20ft across the stage.

The technology allows a set to be filled with water within seconds, only to be drained moments later, and to burst into flames that can be extinguished just as quickly.

Cages is being brought to the UK from the US by the production company Scenario Two, co-founded by John Berry, a former artistic director of English National Opera (ENO), whose innovative productions have received 14 Olivier awards and 50 nominations, among other prizes.

He said: “This is cinematic theatre. It is just phenomenal. They’ve spent millions on it. I’ve never ever seen technology like it. You cannot see the difference between live performers and the avatars – and the score’s incredible.

“I see a lot of productions around the world and I’ve never seen anything like this in a theatre. People won’t know what’s hit them. It’s totally original.”

The show’s creators, CJ Baran and Benjamin Romans of the theatre company Woolf and the Wondershow, spent eight years developing the technology.

As head of ENO between 2007 and 2015, Berry’s critically acclaimed stagings included Sweeney Todd with Emma Thompson, and Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. In 2017, he formed Scenario Two with Anthony Lilley, creating further theatrical productions, including the forthcoming Pavarotti musical.

He said: “We discovered Cages in the Los Angeles Arts District, where it has become a cult event. We’ve never seen a musical theatre piece in London, or anywhere, which comes near its technical and aural bravura.”

Giant hand reaches for actor underwater
The show’s technology allows onstage effects such as water filling up the set.

Realising its potential to draw audiences used to seeing extraordinary special effects in cinemas, they were determined to bring it to the UK. Cages opens on 13 September at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, as it requires a black box – a complete blackout – into which technology is built.

Berry said: “It’s hard to rationally compute what you are seeing on stage and which singers are actually singing live. Sometimes the production is populated by dozens of people – what is real and what has been created through the intricate video mapping is impossible to know as the holographic characters interact seamlessly with the live cast.”

He described ABBA Voyage – in which avatars recreate the Swedish pop group – as “incredible”, but said Cages was equally brilliant on its own scale – using different technology and state-of-the-art 3D video and animation, cinematic effects, holographic and immersive sound.

In 2016, the Royal Shakespeare Company staged a groundbreaking production of The Tempest in which the actor Mark Quartley wore sensors that captured his movements, rendering Ariel, the sprite, as an animated ethereal character.

Berry said: “That’s good, but this is so different. I can honestly say there’s absolutely nothing like it.”

Two actors on stage surrounded by crowds
The show’s creators say that audiences cannot tell the real actors apart from the avatars. Photograph: Handout

Cages is a love story set in a dystopian world called Anhedonia, “where emotions are forbidden and hearts are locked in cages”. A reclusive soul called Woolf, played by Baran, finds himself falling in love with the “dazzlingly peculiar Madeline”.

The music and lyrics are composed, produced and arranged by Baran and Romans, with video animation and holograms by David and Ryan Richardson.

Berry said: “They’ve done this incredible symphonic score that surrounds you in 360-degree sound. It moves from huge symphonic scale to delicate melodies.” The score has been described as having echoes of Daft Punk, Ellie Goulding and Kanye West.

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