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.

Does the Daily Mail understand copyright law?

Earlier this week, my attention was drawn to a story on the Daily Mail’s website on the basis that it was unusual. And it is, for here’s a story about gay parents which makes no attempt to demonise them or suggest that the baby concerned is at risk in any way. For the Mail, that’s a big step forward.

Daily Mail story on gay surrogacy by Julie Moult

The story itself is quite a heart-warming one: a gay couple are now parents of a beautiful baby boy, thanks to one of the men’s sister, who acted as a surrogate.

It’s clear, though, that the couple did not approach the Mail with their story, but that the majority of the “investigation” has been conducted by reading Facebook pages of the people concerned.

> However, on his Facebook web page last week, Mr Sigston could not contain his excitement.
> ‘I am one happy Daddy – life is good, life is just where I want it,’ he wrote.
> Two weeks after the birth he posted a message to Mrs Bradley which read: ‘Still really can’t believe how one amazing gesture can change the course of your life. Thank you sooooo much – you know who you are!!!!!

Any attempts by the Mail to garner direct quotes resulted in people refusing to talk about this private matter with them:

> …’We’re not ready to talk about this at the moment.’…
> …A spokesman said it was a private matter on which they would not be commenting.
> Yesterday, Mrs Bradley said she was shocked the story had come to light and said she wanted time to think about whether to speak publicly. She said: ‘I need to consult my family, this has all come as a bit of a shock. There is a lot of us involved in it so we have all got to discuss it.’

That hasn’t stopped the Mail from publishing many photos, both of the happy parents and the sister who has helped them. Apart from one papped shot which is credited to freelance photographer Glenn Harvey, every other photograph on the page has the wording “© Facebook” attached.

Except that Facebook doesn’t own copyright on photos you submit to it – copyright remains with the people who took the photos. While there have been spats with Facebook over changes to their terms of service in recent times, the company has never attempted to claim copyright over what it terms “user content”. As with any other social networking website, you grant the site a licence to republish your content to your friends or other people, depending on your privacy settings. That doesn’t enable newspaper organisations to take those photos and republish them without your permission.

A quick look on Facebook now confirms that the three adults involved in this story have their privacy settings locked down so that only friends can see the pages from which this information has been lifted. Whether that was the case at the time the Mail lifted the story and the photographs, I can’t say. But whatever their privacy settings were, the Daily Mail had no right to use those photographs without permission — and from the quotes provided, it sounds unlikely that such permission would have been given.