Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Off-Topic: Such Tweet Sorrow

For the past five weeks I and many others have been riveted to our Twitter feeds, watching an innovative social "experiment" by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Mudlark Productions. "Such Tweet Sorrow" was a modern-day production of Romeo and Juliet acted out in real time over Twitter, with the six key characters of the play tweeting the storyline to the audience.

When I first heard about the concept I was dubious; the key elements of the play revolve around secrets, lies and misunderstandings -- I couldn't see how they could communicate all this through such a public medium as Twitter, let alone accomplishing all the gravitas and pathos Shakespeare did with his wonderful dialogue.

The six main characters were:

- Juliet Capulet, soon to be 16
- Tybalt Capulet, Juliet's 17-year-old brother (rather than cousin/kinsman)
- Jess Capulet aka Nurse - Juliet's 23-year-old sister
- Romeo Montague, 19
- Mercutio, 19, Romeo's best friend/foster brother
- Laurence Friar, aka Larry, 38, local café owner and soft drug dealer.

The producers were also online, and one supplementary cast member added to the fray a little later was Jago Mosca, a local youth whose addition, in my opinion, was a genius move by Mudlark - as a sneaky observer, he provided much-needed between-the-lines insight in the form of blog posts.

The production got off to an oddly mixed start for me - the first two weeks were spent vociferously establishing the family feud, with all characters being less-than subtle about their hatred for the other camp. The reason for the feud itself was a little shaky - something about a car crash where Mrs. Capulet was killed, Mr. Montague was driving, and Mr. Capulet was so incensed with rage after finding out they had been having an affair that he beat Montague within an inch of his life, causing him to lose an eye.

It was a rocky start, with some followers blogging some thoughtful (if controversial) critique about the characters' tendencies to be a little over the top ("show, don't tell"). However the producers were very open to critique from the followship, and weekly cast meetings took place after which it was plain to see the positive effect the fans were having on the production.

It was clear from the start that the audience immersion was going to be a key point in the success of the production, and no character managed that better than Mercutio. His early links to pictures, audioboos and videos of himself and Romeo out on the town established his character brilliantly, his games of #uploadthatload (where he and Romeo attempted to take sneaky pics of girls' bums and boobs without the girls seeing) and #gamesattheoffice (where he encouraged his followers to make up games to make the time at work go by faster) got the audience involved in a huge way, and he quickly earned himself a massive following, myself included, who dubbed themselves #teammercutio and #mercutiogroupies. After Romeo was grounded by his father, Mercutio's loneliness spilled out onto Twitter and Youtube when he posted a hilarious video of himself miming to Eric Carmen's All By Myself. He was also the first to regularly tweet in character back to the followers, flirting with the girls and getting us all on board. The fan response to him was so strong that it even prompted a huge (and unsuccessful) #savemercutio campaign where the fans begged the producers to let Mercutio bow out in some way that didn't involve his violent and untimely death. Even Mercutio's final hours were hugely interactive, with his final tweet being a shout-out to the #mercutiogroupies (prompting fangirl tears heard the world over). It's my firm belief that without Mercutio, Such Tweet Sorrow could not have had the fanbase it has had.

That's not to say the other characters didn't play their own huge part in making the production as successful as it was. The real turning point for me was the night of the masked ball at the Capulet residence; a stroke of genius prompted the producers to have the Friar create online playlists on and Spotify, with Juliet tweeting and Facebooking the start time and encouraging everyone to listen to the playlist from then. It was never going to synchronise exactly due to Spotify adverts and the like, but it did serve to bring all the followers online at one time and multiple picture posts and audioboos throughout the night really set the scene. When the star-crossed lovers eventually clapped eyes on each other the fan reaction was huge (Juliet's "ABORT! ABORT! He's walking over here!" was one of my favourite tweets of the whole play). The inclusion of these real-time events really helped with the audience immersion, even to the point that a simple (if competitive) ping-pong tournament pitting Tybalt against Mercutio had waves of Mercutio fans convinced that day would be his last (it wasn't).

The production hasn't been without its flaws. On Juliet's birthday she received a present of a new mobile phone, and waxing rhapsodic about the precise make, model and features of the phone prompted cries of indignation that product placement was inappropriate and spoiled the experience. I personally wasn't that fussed - Juliet made a maximum of maybe four tweets about it in a short space of time and then never mentioned it again. Juliet herself came under some very severe criticism for losing her virginity to Romeo the night she met him, being completely self-involved, posting a video of places they had "done it" and generally being everything most 16-year-olds are these days. Also the audience was forced to suspend disbelief about certain elements such as tweets going ignored or missed, or emergency services not being called until the very last minute when it was far too late.

The biggest flaw for me, unfortunately, was the finale. It all started at 06:00 UK time on a Wednesday morning, which was incredibly inconvenient for the international followers, some of whom had been committed since day one and were unable to participate due to the time difference. Also despite the actors giving it their all in the final hours, the plot itself was full of holes -- Juliet took propofol, a strong anaesthetic, with the intention of being unconscious and unrousable when her father came to take her to Australia the following morning. Yet she escaped home and went to Friar's house, taking the anaesthetic only to wake up some eleven hours later and discover Romeo's corpse. While the propofol served its purpose in that Romeo mistook her for dead, in terms of the story a beat was missed -- the purpose was supposed to be that Juliet would be able to escape her father's wishes, yet he didn't seem to feature much at all (apart from a very odd and disjointed couple of tweets from Tybalt's account) -- realistically she could have run off to Friar's without the need for the potion at all, or she should have taken the potion at home so her father could discover her. The finale still doesn't make a huge amount of sense to me and feels slightly rushed.

Yet for every incident where one might question the characters' motives, there was at least one moment of pure inspiration: Romeo's Audioboo dedication to his fallen best friend on Mercutio's memorial day will forever stand out as one of the most heart-breaking things I have ever heard. Each character has alternately had times when they were insufferable and sympathetic -- Friar's turn from philosophical father-figure to drunk-every-night blabbermouth was hilarious and tragic all at the same time; similarly Tybalt's rage against the whole world was interspersed with genuine affection for his big sister during her marathon run, and hope for the future when told he could take over the family business, all to great effect. Juliet's final night before taking her sleeping potion was wonderfully produced, with a series of creepy tweets and pictures showing a glass with less and less propofol in it each time.

Overall I would say the production has been a huge success and I will miss it. I'm not alone in hoping that Mudlark carries out another online production like this in the future. After a slightly lacklustre start the actors really came into their own and successfully portrayed believable and sympathetic characters -- to the point where I and many others would occasionally forget we were watching a pre-determined plot play out, and would desperately try and influence the characters' actions in some way to avoid the inevitable tragedy.

Finally this post wouldn't be complete without a shout-out to the fantastic people I have met through this and will continue to follow on Twitter:


Folks - without you my enjoyment of this production would have been greatly diminished.

Big thanks to Mudlark and the RSC and congratulations to the players - can't wait to see what the future holds.


Mary said...

The play was taking place in *real time* and for the RSC that means UK time. As a member of the UK audience I thought they'd timetabled it really well. All tweets happened at an appropriate time of day, from Jess_nurse's early morning runs to the football match.

Romeo starting to tweet for the last leg of trying to find Juliet at 6am was inconvenient for the UK audience too - between 6 and 10am most of us are sleeping, waking up, getting kids off to school, driving to work, etc - but if he was sleeping rough on a park bench, that's when his day would have started.

I feel that to plot events around when an international audience would have been most likely to be watching, rather than sticking to a 'real' chronological layout, would have detracted from the point of having it in real-time.

Jessica said...

Hi Mary, thanks for stopping by.

I appreciate your point but I think one has to consider that this is a production meant for an audience. In so many other respects the delivery was unrealistic, so attention-to-detail when it comes to the timing seems almost irrelevant or pointless in light of the other aspects where artistic license was employed. Your comment about it also being inconvenient for UK audiences only reinforces my point - why act out a performance if nobody is there to see it? In all other respects the key events have been timed well enough that most followers were able to participate live -- seems a shame that the finale would have to be read back and reacted to in retrospect by most of the audience.

Thanks again for stopping by and commenting. :)

Post a Comment