As Such Tweet Sorrow’s followers are rocked by the double deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, the Annals of Edinburgh Stage publishes this in-depth interview with the production’s director, Roxana Silbert
By Thom Dibdin
Death came dropping slow on Monday night to Such Tweet Sorrow, Twitterland’s production of Romeo and Juliet. All was as it should be. A little over halfway through any production of the play, Mercutio Montague and Tybalt Capulet become involved in a fatal brawl. Without it the final tragedy does not work.
I have witnessed that selfsame mortal wounding a good dozen times over the years. Most recently last week in a Scottish Ballet production when strutting Paul Liburd as Mercutio fell on a lucky thrust from the dagger of Tama Barry’s weak-willed Tybalt.
Yet it was as nothing to the fatal moment in the Twitterland production. After all, at the ballet, the fight was but a brief scene of strutting players in a two hour production. In Twitterland, the production had been going for a whole three weeks – with a fortnight still to run.
The deaths were played out in real time, not the compressed time of theatre. They took hours and involved long intervals when nothing new was heard. Where Liburd and Barry were involved in a fight that brought out every dancing nuance of their characters, @Mercuteio and @Tybalt_cap’s dance with death occurred away from witnesses.
Up until the fatal fracas, the day had not been exactly glorious for the production. The football match which precipitated the fight was very poorly portrayed and the tweets from the production’s followers showed that many did not really understood about the match itself. Indeed, the number of followers was beginning to decline slightly having levelled off, ironically enough, just after Romeo and Juliet first got it together.
That said, the portrayal of @Mercuteio and @Tybalt_cap’s deaths worked brilliantly. People were glued to their computers all evening. There were genuine outpourings of emotion from the production’s followers afterwards and a tributes page was set up for Mercutio. To his fans, and there were many, it was as if they had lost a real friend.
It all seems far removed from the production I discussed with its director Roxana Silbert three weeks ago – just after it first went live. That interview has much to say about the shape the production is taking now.
From the outside, it all seemed like a clever idea from the RSC. From the inside, Silbert knew that she was onto something rather different: “It is more like doing a Mike Leigh film,” she said. “The performers have to live and breathe their characters 24 hours a day and be on their laptops or on their mobiles.”
Silbert is no stranger to the new in theatre. She arrived with the Royal Shakespeare Company, who are running Such Tweet Sorrow, last October from cutting-edge theatre company Paines Plough. She had spent four years as Artistic Director of Paines Plough after a stint up in Edinburgh as the Literary Director of the Traverse, Scotland’s home of new writing for the theatre. Her first production for the RSC was David Greig’s Dunsinane.
Such Tweet Sorrow grew out of a partnership put together by digital media guru John Benfield, between the RSC, Mudlark – a Birmingham-based company who are well-ahead in the games field – and Channel 4.
“People tend to follow their own age groups”
“We threw around a lot of ideas and the idea that stuck was a play on Twitter,” remembered Silbert. “It is the first of what I hope will be a series of initiatives. We chose Romeo and Juliet because we wanted to talk to a young audience. It was a play that had young characters and basically people tend to follow their own age groups.”
Rupert Gould was opening Romeo and Juliet on stage for the RSC about the same time. Neil Bartlett’s production had just come off tour, so there were actors who were already well into the mindset of the characters – several of whom joined the Such Tweet Sorrow project. And a previous “staging” of the play on Twitter had, in reality, been no more than tweeting the play in full – but just cut up into Twitter-length lines.
“Because we were trying to tell a story on Twitter or create a play on Twitter, it has become its own thing,” explained Silbert. “You can’t do on Twitter what you wold have done in the theatre – and nor would you want to! So it is a matter of what stories you can tell and how you can tell them.”
If the basic plot is that of Romeo and Juliet, by setting the play in a contemporary, small English market town, the project had to take a quite different approach to the various elements of the story – quite apart from the Twitter angle.
“We broke down the story beat by beat and then we had to do a lot of re-imagining of who the characters are now and where they would be. What would stop people getting together nowadays? Because your father is unlikely to marry you off to somebody else, all that sort of stuff.
“We also had to imagine these characters in a non-traditional way: what websites are they looking at? What games are they playing? What is their social media? How do they use Facebook? We started to think about characters in that space and because we are working with quite young actors, that is absolutely native to them. Charlotte Wakefield who is playing Juliet is 19, she has 2000 followers on Twitter on her own personal name. It is absolutely part of what she does every single day.”
One of the project’s key decisions was that the actors would improvise the “dialogue” – or their tweets – so there are no lines written out. Although the company talks about “writers” and “directors”, the reality is that the play was conceived by Silbert with her nominal “writers”, Bethan Marlow and Tim Wright, who created a grid of events which had to occur at specific times.
In the opening days, Juliet might have had to tweet one morning about wanting to go shopping the next weekend. That would be the key element actress Charlotte Wakefield had to get across. How she did so, was up to her. More recently, and particularly on Monday, those key elements have become slightly less mundane.
“It is completely unlike anything I have ever done before because it happens in real time, not in compressed time, and they are improvising,” according to Silbert. “So they are responding to each other, they are responding to people who tweet in, obviously, and they are responding to world events – they can’t ignore them. We know there is going to be a London marathon, we know there is going to be an election, but there are lots of other things we don’t know are going to happen.
“I had to completely re-imagine my approach to directing,” she continued. “Because of my work at the Traverse I am used to working on new scripts – but this isn’t a script, it is a schedule. And the schedule has all sorts of challenges, like Juliet can’t tweet when she is at school, so she can only tweet from 7.30am to 8.30am. But then the research told us that most people tweet monday to Friday 9 to 5, obviously most people who tweet are in jobs that they don’t like. People don’t tweet in the evenings or at weekends, particularly. So all the key plot events have to happen at times when people are avidly following.
“The other big difference is that everything is public. If you are directing a play you get those lovely little moments of interaction between characters but this is all public so you have to be really clear about who is following who and when – and Romeo and Juliet is a story full of secrets. How do you get that story across without being able to do those intimate scenes particularly when, as a new writing director, it is all about intimate scenes. So it has been a very different experience.”
“Some of the writing needs to have a soap opera quality”
One of the first questions anyone asked about the production is what is it? Is it soap opera, theatre or a reality tweet show? The answer is that it is a bit of all of those things. Apart from theatre.
“It isn’t theatre because it isn’t in compressed time and you don’t have the undivided attention of the audience,” explained Silbert. “Some of the writing needs to have a soap opera quality – you need to be able to drop in and out of it. For a major event like the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet we have had to think quite hard about how we keep on reintroducing that bit of information – because not everybody will be staying in on Saturday night to follow their tweets.
“It is drama. They are characters, and they are characters telling a story, they [the performers] are not tweeting as themselves. A lot of what I had to do was really bed them in their characters because they are on their own. Which is the other thing that is very different. So they are characters and they are telling a story and it is a story that is meant to resonate beyond simply a domestic detail which a lot of tweeting is.
“One of the things which is really exciting about it is finding the turning points in the story and really focusing in on them and also being able to bring the audience in to help you make those choices. It is just not a stage play.”
It is more than a purely Twitter-based event, however. The team looked at the various social media and how people use platforms like Facebook, where you might click onto a YouTube link, or nip off to look at someone’s tweetpics. Intriguingly, that’s the way that you get to know the characters at the start: not through what they say and do but through what games they play, what web sites they are following and who they are following themselves.
“What is exciting is that it is the first thing of its kind and so it is a completely new thing,” says Silbert. “You are kind of making it up as you go along and hoping you are making the right decisions.”
One of the new elements is that the actors do not come together to perform at the same place. After a week’s workshopping of the production and a week’s rehearsal immediately before the first tweet on Monday, 12th of April, the company were all on their own, apart from two hours over lunch on a Monday to see how everyone is getting on. Other than that, they don’t meet as a team.
“It is all virtual,” said Silbert. “We have a hub that we can all connect into. Some of the actors are doing things together. For example Romeo and Mercutio are going out clubbing, they will go out clubbing and they will be putting Tweet pics up and tweeting from a club and they are going to meet up and they are going to go clubbing and they are going to do that live. because it is a fun thing to do. But most of the time they are sitting at home doing it.”
Ironically, it was that very clubbing escapade which really set Mercutio up as the character to follow, amongst Such Tweet Sorrow’s most avid fans. Juliet might have the most individual followers with a peak of 5928 on 29 April, but Mercutio’s following has never stopped rising. It had grown to 3,829 at his final tweet on Monday evening and, intriguingly, was still going up 48 hours later.
Some elements of the production are as old as theatre itself, however. Not in the acting or the method of delivery, but in the concern of the producers for the reach of the play. In a building that concern translates to bums on seats. On Twitter, that means followers: the number of people who have signed up to get every 140 character tweet that each character sends out into the ether.
“That is vital, completely vital,” agrees Silbert. “For the RSC, what is attractive is that it is in a small town in the middle of England – while Twitter is an international form that anybody can access. And of course it is free. We are hoping, conservatively to reach 10,000 people.”
“it is like going back to the Fringe”
The other age-old element is just as basic. While the company have computers, mobile phones and virtual hubs, there is a minimal props budget for the creation of the YouTube videos that give the production much greater depth.
“We don’t have a set designer,” revealed Silbert. “It is all very makeshift. Basically one of the writers and I went to a shop and spent £20 on some stuff which she can put up and make. There is a party, Juliet’s party, where we had them all making their own masks. In a bizarre way it is like going back to the Fringe: we have done everything, all the tweetpics, all the filming, all the audioboos, ourselves. We did it all on our mobile phones, because we wanted to recreate that feel.”
And what of the production’s legacy. Could Silbert see the “text” created by the process being refined and even staged?
“We talked about it a lot when we were trying to work out what the project would look like,” she revealed. “Originally there was an idea that it would create a text and that that text would then find its way onto the stage. But the more that we developed the idea and the more that we worked with the actors and got concrete material, the more that we thought that it is so far away from theatre that it just would not make a good piece of theatre.
“What is really interesting is we are getting a lot of teachers [following the production] which we didn’t expect because it really wasn’t for that market at all. They are writing in and saying ‘we have got all our kids following it, because all the story beats are there and all the dilemmas and the kids are getting into it.’
“But if you put it on the stage, some of the language would feel very thin. It hasn’t got the muscularity of stage language, so we abandoned that idea pretty fast. But it is interesting because, originally, a lot of what we were trying to do was make the links between Twitter and theatre. And what we have come up with is that it is a completely different form of communication and you can’t really to it.”
Sitting watching the ballet last week, I was already immersed in the world of Romeo and Juliet. And while the ballet was able to express the love – romantic and sensual – much better than Twitter has been able to do so far, Such Tweet Sorrow still has a whole fortnight left to run. And I, for one, fully intend to remain immersed in @romeo_mo and @julietcap16′s world for all that time.