The Bard Goes Digital: Such Tweet Sorrow

Romeo and Juliet gets the 21st century treatment with a unique performance live on Twitter

Today sees the opening of Such Tweet Sorrow, the world's first ever Twitter "performance" of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It is not a performance as such, in that the Shakespearean text is dispensed with entirely, and the scriptless drama will unfold improvised, based on character profiles and story arcs by the creative team with writers Bethan Marlow and Tim Wright (Radio 4, Online Caroline), over the course of five weeks.

The product of a partnership between the Royal Shakespeare Company, 4iP - Channel 4's digital investment fund - and cross-platform production company Mudlark, this unique production is one of the Royal Shakespeare Company's first ventures into the digital performance arena and indeed the first arts production for 4iP. Working in partnership with Screen West Midlands, 4iP is fully-funding this "ground-breaking project". The RSC is supported in this project by Arts Council England's Digital Content Development fund in the West Midlands.

The writers have developed back stories for the characters, which go some way towards explaining the famous Capulet/Montague feud, and provide an impetus for the drama that makes sense in the modern world. The action, and of course the colloquialised dialogue will be driven by six RSC actors, directed by RSC Associate Director, Roxana Silbert. Co-writer Tim Wright told the New Statesman:

We are issuing them with daily "mission" documents that tells them what's meant to happen each day - where they are, what they're doing, who they meet etc. We work from a rather large "grid" we created that maps out the whole story over five weeks pretty much hour by hour. So the actors always have a starting point each day and a series of goals in terms of things to say and do by the end of the day. What they do in between and who they interact with is up to them.

Asked whether this unusual rendering of Shakespeare's best-known tale is designed to turn youngsters onto Shakespeare, Wright agreed, adding:

we're also interested in drawing in an older audience too who are interested in new types of performance - and may be intrigued by this new way of exploring the themes of the play; in particular the issue of young people doing things in secret (on the internet) which you might not approve of or understand...

Michael Boyd, RSC Artistic Director, had this to say:

Our ambition is always to connect people with Shakespeare and bring actors and audiences closer together. Mobile phones don't need to be the antichrist for theatre. This digital experiment with Mudlark and 4iP allows our actors to use mobiles to tell their stories in real time and reach people wherever they are in a global theatre. It's a toe in the water for us and we look forward to seeing how people engage with this new way of playing.

One of the most interesting aspects of this production is that it will provide the opportunity for audience interaction, and social interaction, not just to each other and their audience, but to real events as they unfold globally. The five weeks over which the production will be played out will of course encompass the general election.

Romeo, Juliet and their families, friends and enemies must comment, communicate and develop relationships through 140-character-or-less tweets. On the 23rd April, Shakespeare's birthday, the production will bring together social media with a live online event.

As well as a live feed displayed on Such Tweet Sorrow's website, the audience will also use their Twitter accounts to choose which, or all, of the six characters to follow as the production is played out in real time. The casts' Twitter feeds will allow the audience to follow casually or actively interact with the characters as the drama progresses, putting the audience in a unique position of influence.

As the characters comment, communicate and develop their virtual relationships, the audience will follow their tweets on romance and love, rivalry and violence, as well as what music they are listening to, what they had for breakfast and what the rest of their followers are tweeting.

Photo: Getty
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The age of China's female self-made billionaires – and why it could soon be over

Rags to riches stories like Zhou Qunfei's are becoming less common.

Elizabeth Holmes, 33, was the darling of Silicon Valley, and the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire. Then, after a series of lawsuits, the value of her healthcare firm plummeted.

Holmes might have abdicated the billionaire crown, but another tech queen was ready to take it. Only this time, the self-made female billionaire was not a blonde American, but Zhou Qunfei, a 47-year-old from China. She dropped out of high school and began working at a watch lens factory as a teenager. In 1993, when she was in her early twenties, she founded her own company. Her big break came ten years later, when Motorola asked her to develop a glass screen for smartphones. She said yes.

Zhou is in fact more typical of the SMFB set than Holmes. Of those listed by Forbes, 37.5 per cent come from China, compared to 30 per cent from the United States. Add in the five SMFB from Hong Kong, and the Middle Kingdom dominates the list. Nipping at Zhou’s heels for top spot are Chan Laiwa, a property developer who also curates a museum, and Wa Yajun, also a property developer. Alibaba founder Jack Ma declared his “secret sauce” was hiring as many women as possible.

So should the advice to young feminists be “Go East, young woman”? Not quite, according to the academic Séagh Kehoe, who runs the Twitter account Women in China and whose research areas include gender and identity in the country.

“I haven’t seen any of these self-made female billionaires talking about feminism,” says Kehoe. Instead, a popular narrative in China is “the idea of pulling yourself up by your boot straps”. So far as female entrepreneurs embrace feminism, it’s of the corporate variety – Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In has been translated into Mandarin.

In fact, Kehoe believes the rise of the self-made woman is down to three historic factors – the legacy of Maoist equality, and both the disruption and the opportunity associated with the post-Mao economic reforms.

Mao brought in the 1950 Marriage Law, a radical break with China’s patriarchal traditions, which banned marriage without a woman’s consent, and gave women the right to divorce for the first time.

In Communist China, women were also encouraged to work. “That is something that was actively promoted - that women should be an important part of the labour force,” says Kehoe. “At the same time, they also had the burden of cooking and cleaning. They had to shoulder this double burden.”

After Mao’s death, his successor Deng Xiaoping began dismantling the communist economy in favour of a more market-based system. This included reducing the number of workers at state-owned enterprises. “A lot of women lost their jobs,” says Kehoe. “They were often the first to be laid off.”

For some women – such as the SMFBs – this was counterbalanced by the huge opportunities the new, liberal economy presented. “All this came together to be a driving force for women to be independent,” Kehoe says.

The one child policy, although deeply troubling to feminists in terms of the power it dictates over women’s bodies, not to mention the tendency for mothers to abort female foetuses, may have also played a role. “There is an argument out there that, for all of the harm the one child policy has done, for daughters who were the only child in the family, resources were pushed towards that child,” says Kehoe. “That could be why female entrepreneurs in China have been successful.”

Indeed, for all the dominance of the Chinese SMFBs, it could be short-lived. Mao-era equality is already under threat. Women’s political participation peaked in the 1970s, and today’s leaders are preoccupied with the looming fact of an aging population.

“There has been quite a lot of pushback towards women returning to the home,” says Kehoe. Chinese state media increasingly stresses the role of “good mothers” and social stability. The one child policy has been replaced by a two child policy, but without a comparable strengthening of maternity workplace rights.

Meanwhile, as inequality widens, and a new set of economic elites entrench their positions, rags to riches stories like Zhou Qunfei's are becoming less common. So could the Chinese SMFBs be a unique phenomenon, a generation that rode the crest of a single wave?

“Maybe,” says Kehoe. “The 1980s was the time for self-made billionaires. The odds aren’t so good now.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.