Such Tweet Sorrow: website-specific theatre that works

I have to admit that when I heard a modern day version of Romeo and Juliet was to be ‘staged’ on Twitter, I was sceptical. Not necessarily that it would be possible to play out a series of characters posting online as if they were real — that has been done before. YouTube had lonelygirl15, which continued for some time before being revealed as fictional. On Twitter itself, the characters behind web-only crime thriller Girl Number 9 conversed with each other in the run-up to the release of the first episode online.

That latter experiment didn’t really work for me, because it involved characters I did not know talking to each other about a crime case I knew even less. As such it proved hard to get drawn in.

And I thought the online Romeo and Juliet, punningly entitled Such Tweet Sorrow, might actually suffer a reverse problem. The story of Verona’s two houses both alike in dignity is so well known that it couldn’t possibly work.

Not for the first time, I was incredibly wrong. Such Tweet Sorrow (aka @Such_Tweet) is an utterly compelling retelling. But the kicker is that for it to work, you have to have it playing alongside your existing Twitter conversations. If you dip in via the official website, it just doesn’t work.

You may have heard of site-specific theatre, a “performance which can only be done in a particular place or site”. Such Tweet Sorrow is the first, truly successful, online version – website-specific theatre.

In its first few days, it was hard to adjust to some of the representations of the characters we know from Shakespeare’s play. Most of the characters’ names have been retained from the original — but apart from Juliet @julietcap16 (and, to a far lesser extent, Romeo, @romeo_mo) none of the characters’ first names really work in a modern context. When was the last time you met a Tybalt (@Tybalt_Cap) or a Mercutio (@mercuteio)?

That disparity, between medieval names and dialogue that fits in naturally with life in 2010 London, provides an initial barrier to suspension of disbelief. Some of the other characters’ integration to the storyline required more massaging. Friar Lawrence becomes @LaurenceFriar (not the most common of surnames), an internet café owner and small-time drug dealer. More successfully, the Nurse becomes Jess, Juliet and Tybalt’s older sister, who had to take on a more matronly role towards her siblings when their mother died ten years ago (explaining her @Jess_nurse username)

And just reading the characters’ tweets, either on the Twitter list page @Such_Tweet/such-tweet-sorrow or on the official website timeline, doesn’t really present the story in the correct light to get over that feeling, because it removes from the narrative the most important aspect of Twitter — that it’s a real time messaging system.

Instead, I elected to follow each of the characters, so that their tweets would show up in my own Twitter timeline, jumbled up amid those of everyone else I follow. It means that events play out at a more believable pace: Romeo had to be coaxed onto Twitter because he was too busy playing an online game with an American girl called Rosaline, and didn’t even show up in the ‘play’ for the first couple of days. A brawl between some of the Capulet and Montague boys saw abuse being hurled long after the event, just as it would in real life.

Throughout Friday, Juliet started to stress about her 16th birthday party that night (coincidentally, the youngest Capulet shares her birthday with the Bard), while the Montague boys debated whether to crash it. It may sound trite, but with events unfolding alongside your own friends planning their own Friday evening jollities, it works surprisingly well.

The story has bled out onto other websites, too, just as non-fictional conversations on Twitter do. Sites devoted to sharing photos and videos via Twitter make regular appearances, while a Tumblr-driven blog provides some insights from @Jago_klepto, a classmate of Juliet’s who provides some additional commentary.

As it stands, Romeo and Juliet spent the night together after bumping into one another at the birthday party, so we can expect the fall-out any day now. Which brings another factor into play. In the latter stages of the play, much of the tragedy comes about through the main characters’ ignorance of the others’ intentions and motivations. Juliet fakes her death; Romeo, believing her dead, poisons himself; a waking Juliet, seeing her dead lover, stabs herself.

Given the way the play has unfolded so far, I feel sure that the people planning Such Tweet Sorrow have worked out how to cope with such big secrets in an arena that is intrinsically open to everyone. It’ll be a test of their creativity, for sure — and if that closing act fails online, it will have an effect on how this venture is remembered. Right now, though, to steal a phrase from one of Shakespeare’s other masterpieces, Such Tweet Sorrow is a palpable hit.

Lessons from The Street: We had a bargain, and we forgot

Cross-posted on TV Today

And so we say goodbye to The Street, Jimmy McGovern’s remarkable series of standalone, but inter-related dramas relating the extraordinary tales of neighbours on the most ordinary of streets. After three years, ITV Studios, which made the BBC-commissioned series, has made so many talented people redundant that McGovern doesn’t want to try and continue.

But while the series drew to a close last night with a moment of sad reflection, it also went out on a dramatic high — one that, in a way, reflects not only the end of The Street, but the end of an era.

Given that many people may have the episode stacked up on their Sky+ or on iPlayer, I’m going to continue this after the jump — so be warned, from hereon in there are spoilers

Continue reading “Lessons from The Street: We had a bargain, and we forgot”

Torchwood: Children of Earth music

After a week of Torchwood-related content, I’m still bowled over by the quality of the finished product. While I liked the first two series, I loved Children of Earth.

One reason (among many) was Ben Foster’s incidental music – which is now available to buy. And, if I’ve got my HTML right, you should be able to see a player with some samples below. If you’re reading this in an RSS reader or in Facebook, you may need to click through to my blog to see it in its full effect.

* Torchwood: Children of Earth

The Viewing Room, Arts Theatre

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The Arts Theatre’s new production tries hard to be a blackly comic commentary on post-terrorist surveillance culture, but only manages to succeed in small bursts.

Set in the near future after a ‘Second Big Attack’, a suburban couple take part in a new programme in which a convicted criminal is incarcerated in their front room. Leonard Roberts as Kyle, trapped upstage, is highly effective in dominating proceedings, while James Flynn and Samantha Wright flitter and twitter in front of him. Indeed, it is Roberts’ deadpan, imposing stature that just about manages to save the play, finding wit and eliding over plot holes in a script that has too little of the former and far too many of the latter.

After a lacklustre first act, things pick up dramatically post-interval when the couple realise that they are not harbouring a petty thief, as they thought, but a convicted murderer – and must administer a death sentence by lethal injection. With each of Kyle’s guards struggling with their conscience, and wondering whether his protestations of innocence are genuine, the cracks in their relationship begin to show. While the paths the characters take is not hard to predict for the audience, Samantha Wright at least manages to elicit some depth and sincerity to a character which could easily have become a cipher.

All is thrown away again, though, before the play reaches its end. A revelation that the video cameras are not being monitored, after all, both creates another yawning plot hole and drives a body blow to any comment the play may have to say about contemporary surveillance culture. Like the denouement of the play itself, this is a fatal blow, administered in such a clumsy way that it undoes all that has gone before.

Reviewed for The Stage

The Viewing Room, Arts Theatre2Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 13:33:52The Arts Theatre’s new production tries hard to be a blackly comic commentary on post-terrorist surveillance culture, but only manages to succeed in…

Total Eclipse, Menier Chocolate Factory

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Coming hard on the heels of the Garrick’s Treats, the Menier continues London’s obsession with Christopher Hampton revivals, but on the basis of this production, it is hard to see the appeal.

Total Eclipse catalogues the tempestuous relationship between two of France’s greatest poets, as Paul Verlaine sacrifices his marriage in favour of the precocious teenager, Arthur Rimbaud. Daniel Evans, fresh from his Olivier-winning role in the Menier’s Sunday in the Park with George, initially plays Verlaine as an over-eager Labrador of a man, fascinated by what he sees as the genius before him. The impact that has on his wife (Georgia Moffett) and mother-in-law – the sublime Susan Kyd, in the performance of the evening – works well, at least until Verlaine’s violent temper bursts out. Evans struggles with the extreme change in the character, seeming far more comfortable with implying that side to his nature through dialogue.

Jamie Doyle delivers most of Rimbaud’s lines with the same petulant bark throughout, depriving some of his best dialogue of its wit and acidity, while failing to save the worst from falling into melodrama. There is little spark between the two leads, save for one all-too-brief scene in the second act – surely a disappointment in a play where passion needs to drive the characters’ relationship.

Director Paul Miller stages the play on a thin, raised, wooden catwalk, with the audience either side. By increasing the distance between the characters in each scene, it often helps to accentuate emotional distance, but at the same time forces the actors to over-deliver lines, losing some of the subtleties that this production needs to regain its bite.

Total Eclipse, Menier Chocolate Factory2Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 13:56:06Coming hard on the heels of the Garrick’s Treats, the Menier continues London’s obsession with Christopher Hampton revivals, but on the basis of t…