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.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.