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13 April 2010

The Bard Goes Digital: Such Tweet Sorrow

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

By Charlotte Newman

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.

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

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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.