It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that in the British Theatre Blogosphere (yes, you may shoot me for using that word) Such Tweet Sorrow, the RSC’s twitter adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, has been as well received as a proverbial lead balloon. Or a Montague at a Capulet cabinet meeting if you want a more story-appropriate simile.
I confess – my problems with Such Tweet started quite early on. I’m going to quote Such Tweet‘s Director Roxanna Silbert from an interview that appeared on the Guardian site and see if you can spot where my problems started:
“I think [Shakespeare] would’ve loved it. All you’ve got on Twitter is the actor, the story and the audience. I’ve directed at the Globe where there aren’t lights, sound effects or much staging so in fact there’s something rather pure about this.”
Yep, that would be my highlighting (the academic in me almost put a ‘my emphasis’ note in there). Now twitter might be lots of things, but an actors medium? Really? The elephant in the room would be the word ‘writer’. I could (and will) continue on this point but since I’m here and Silbert has expended words that are so blatantly questionable I can’t help but look a little closer at the comparison between the Globe and twitter (not a sentence I would ever have thought I’d type). Not only is Silbert wrong in her perception of what does or doesn’t make a production at the Globe (need I go any further than Lucy Bailey’s current production of Macbeth to prove her assertion at best outdated, at worst lazy?) but twitter being ‘pure’? One of the joys of the medium is everything you can throw at it – all the twitpics, the audioboos, the YouTube links, the spotify playlists, the blog links, the RTs, the memes…and on and on until you get to doing that quiz to work out which member of NKOTB you should marry. Twitter is about the words – those 140 characters – but it’s also about the noise that goes with it. Coming in unaware – or in denial – of this is to fundamentally misunderstand your tools.
I think many of my problems with Such Tweet stem from this starting point. The failure to address the fact that twitter is a writer’s medium became immediately apparent. Anyone can use twitter. As with anything, some use it better than others. Some people give information, some make me think, some make me smile. Some people use it brilliantly to create – or ape – character (I follow a Malcolm Tucker who is pretty much pitch perfect). Such Tweet, however, requires more than all that. It needs not only character but also story. Whether you’re writing, devising or improvising dialogue (for twitter is dialogue, in all the ways that something can be dialogue) it’s often not about what you say but what you don’t say. It’s the wants the characters feel they must hide or – and this is where it gets more difficult – the wants they don’t know that they have. It’s the much uttered show don’t tell. Don’t write on the nose. All the things that writers get told or learn or ignore and end up writing Days of Our Lives. The “I” form of twitter encourages on the nose writing. We all do it. The best tweeters just do it a lot less than the rest of us. But to be dramatically interesting – to build the connections and the interest that a play demands – Such Tweet should have created some warning system whereby if more than 10% of tweets were of the on the nose variety the actor typing them got a small electric shock.
I can only conclude that even a less cruel-to-actors system wasn’t in place. Had there been discussions about language? About cliché? About reversing audience expectation? About what you can do with the unsaid? In the same interview that Silbert suggested the Globe/Twitter parallel Charlotte Wakefield (Juliet) also said something that made my warning alarms go off:
“I’m nearly 20 so I would normally type in quite a sophisticated way, but a 15-year-old today will use a lot of text speak.”
If that statement were a bucket then it would have a lot of holes in it. Again I lay my prejudices down: if the Goldsmiths teaches you anything it is that a generalised statement in the place of accurate research is, quite frankly, not good enough. Maybe some teenagers do use lots of text speak. Maybe some don’t. But what about the specific teenager you’re portraying? The chances are that when a writer is praised for how accurate their language is they’re being anything but literal. Listen to how a conversation actually goes. Listen to how people communicate. Not only would it make pretty much no sense if it were directly copied down, it would also be incredibly dull (look at verbatim theatre, for every play of that genre that works and is pleasurable to watch/ read there’s at least ten which will make you fall asleep). You need the lexicon but beyond that you need imagination not reality. We’re adapting from Shakespeare – if that doesn’t give you a license to engage your imagination then I don’t know what does. The blunt truth, however realistic or not, is that I (and I imagine others) do not want to read text speak.
It wasn’t until the list of credits that @SuchTweet tweeted today that I became aware that there were writers (plural) involved in the project. Their role (as far as has been declared) was to create the overall narrative and then the mission sheets which the actors were given each day. And here we have another problem. Such Tweet didn’t need a writer (if we take it that the actors are going to devise/ improvise the actual text) – Such Tweet needed a Dramaturg. It needed someone who not only planned the narrative but who dealt with the structural problems that twitter brings with it. Someone who sat down and before a single tweet went live decided what the conventions of the piece should be. Depending on conventions we might accept that people burst into song (and know all the dance steps), that there is a narrator, or direct address, or Pinter pauses. Audiences will go places with you if you set your conventions – and then stick to them. How should the public/private oxymoron of twitter be addressed? Would characters respond (or not) to those outside the narrative? Would they respond to criticism within the play or ignore it? It seemed that no one had sat down and found an answer to these (hugely important) questions. Equally the huge change in tone – and lexicon – midway through from Romeo pointed to the distinct possibility that there hadn’t ever been a character tone (and how a tone might be created) meeting somewhere down the line.
I know I’ve chosen to analyse Such Tweet on its artistic rather than social or marketing merits. I think there is much to be said for how it has clearly engaged an audience (and proven that a twitter full length play might be a feasible prospect). I’m also aware that the project marks a significant experiment in form (of which no one, least of all me sat pontificating here, could have seen the ways it would develop or the problems which would arise). I do know though: I stopped properly following the story one week in. I dipped in and out of the @SuchTweet list for the rest of the project but with something approaching duty rather than real interest (Shakespeare. Twitter. New writing. I couldn’t ever abandon it entirely).
I wanted more. I wanted everything that a play can be. I wanted the RSC to have taken it seriously enough to have thought of all the stylistic/ narrative problems that it would inevitably encounter. I wanted it to not just be a gimmick.
I wanted the writing to be as innovative – and as exciting – as the concept itself was.