Sydney Festival Review: Whist is an intriguing but not wholly satisfactory experience

A dance-theatre piece presented using virtual reality technology in which the audience subconsciously chooses their own performance is a fantastic concept, but with Whist the end-result is confusing and even a little disturbing. For those interested in psychology and, in particular, the work of Sigmund Freud, this is an immersive treat. But if you’re looking for a joyous exploration of new technology in art you may be left wondering what could have been.

Whist is billed as ‘a surreal theatre-meets-VR experience inspired by Freud’ and it certainly delivers on this premise. The ‘performance’ is presented via virtual reality (VR) headsets, which project films of dancers in various scenes that seemingly represent their subconscious thoughts. The scenes do not follow one single narrative, but rather become stitched together by the audience member, whose own subconscious choices inform where the art will take them next. There are, in fact, 76 different combinations which can be undertaken by participants, so if you’re attending with a buddy it’s highly unlikely you’ll see the same show.

Audience members begin the Whist experience without the aid of technology, entering a room full of strange, monochromatic-coloured shapes, which they are encouraged to investigate to become accustomed to the space. Then, armed with a VR headset and headphones, individuals move between these same objects, which, when viewed through the headset, trigger a film to be played on their personal screens.

Because each person’s experience is different, it is difficult to describe what you will see. However, at a high level, the scenes are mostly contained within the rooms of a rundown house. Think peeling wallpaper, broken windows and mouldy paint. These are the subconscious minds of our three main performers (Robert Hayden, Tomsilav English and Yen-Ching Lin), and they appear to be quite troubled.

What is wonderful for those (myself included) who have yet to experience 360 degree VR sound and visuals is that you truly feel immersed in the scenes. Turning your head (or your whole body) reveals the entirety of a scene. A room that you first thought was empty may actually house another person, whom you feel could be looking straight at you and in close enough proximity to touch. Choose to sit on the floor to view the next film and you may look down at your feet only to realise you are seated on a table or in an armchair. The experience is really quite extraordinary.

However, the content of the piece – that is, Freud’s fascination with the unconscious mind and the meaning of dreams – makes for disturbing viewing, no matter how it is delivered. Both the objects and the films they trigger sit firmly in the surreal genre, which makes a lot of sense given the Surrealist movement was concerned with the interpretation of dreams through art. Well-known Surrealist (and devotee of Freud), Salvador Dali, would definitely be a fan of this work. The use of diffused colour, masked actors and echoing, faceless voices make the films feel quite unsettling. And that’s before you unpack some of Freud’s theories, like the Oedipus complex and psychosexuality. While the performers’ physical commitment to the work is unwavering, their blank stares and maniacal smiles make it difficult to want to engage. A melancholy, discordant soundtrack (composed by Jozef Van Wissem and Scott Gibbons) adds to the feeling of unease.

There are also a few problems with the execution. For starters, the projections aren’t 100% sharp and clear, so at times it is difficult to clearly distinguish the faces or objects in a scene. Then, in order to activate the next film, the guides recommend you remove your headset so you can see clearly and not bump into the other audience members. This causes a slightly dizzying effect as your eyes adjust between virtual and actual reality. Finally, when you reach your next object, triggering the film can require some manoeuvring to get you in just the right spot, which is difficult when having to avoid disturbing the other viewers who are already ensconced in their virtual world.

The work does succeed in providing a practical example of Freud’s belief that the unconscious mind is what controls our actions – what you choose to focus on during one film will determine which object (and sequence) you are drawn to next. Unfortunately, this was something that we were made aware of only after the experience was completed. You are also given a number that corresponds with your individual journey, which can be used to provide a more in-depth analysis of what you saw. But you have to wait until you can go online and input that number and code into a separate website, which disrupts the experience – I suggest a few iPads be made available immediately outside the room for people who want to derive some meaning while still ‘in the moment’.

Part of the ‘About an Hour’ selection in this year’s Sydney Festival, Whist doesn’t last long but does require some effort on the part of the audience, who must navigate their own ‘story’. It also demands some understanding of Freud to be fully appreciated. The scenes (and, in fact the objects within the room) are all steeped in Freudian symbolism. For fans of the father of psychology I expect this would be a real treat. But for those who have only a passing understanding of his theories it is difficult to derive immediate meaning from the work. I think this may end up frustrating, rather than fascinating, most participants.

As an experiment in the unconscious Whist is quite interesting. But as an introduction to how new technology can shape performance this is not what I would describe as an entertaining theatrical work. The content is just a bit too unsettling and the execution a little clumsy.


Whist can be experienced at Carriageworks as part of the 2018 Sydney Festival until January 28th. For tickets, go HERE. The reviewer attended the 6pm performance on Saturday 6th January. (Her experience ‘number’ was 18).