That’s the sort of thing that gets me very excited. I’m enthralled by any attempt to extend the boundaries of performance to the digital and informational — recognising that the internet is now a platform not only for information sharing and art distribution but also for performance itself. The dominant form of internet performance so far has been the commercial advertising use of alternate reality games, but there have been projects like the famous lonelygirl15, and the rise of the artistic or plot-drive indie arg, specifically fuelled by the growth of online arg communities. I’m talking here specifically about online performances — artwork with a live or real-time component — rather than simply internet-based art, though that too also offers extraordinary potential. (For many years my favourite site on the internet has been Nobody Here; We Feel Fine crosses the boundary between found art and performance by an artificial intelligence.) So a well-funded, well-promoted experiment in performing Shakespeare online got me all excited.
Frustratingly, critical comment on the project — a genuine reflective appreciation of it — has been really limited. Googling for reviews, I can mainly only find the British press’s initial reaction to the project — a predictable mixture of redrafting the press releases, knee-jerk complaints from stuffy fuddy-duddies, and bright-eyed lauding from trendy new arts types. There have been a few insightful (and mainly critical) reviews from various arts sites and bloggers, but no widespread critical engagement. Which is a real shame, because as an early experiment in a new medium, there’s a great deal to learn from the project.
I followed it religiously, and loved every moment, while still thinking it could’ve been a helluva lot better. I loved the playful reinterpretations of key moments of the play — Romeo met Rosaline playing Call of Duty online; Juliet’s 16th birthday party had a Facebook event and a Spotify playlist; Mercutio met his end at a football riot. It was at its best when it spread its wings across the internet — when videos, photos, audioboos and blogs were combining to give a multi-perspectival picture of events — and at its most touching when events were obliquely inferred rather than turgidly typed (Mercutio’s death scene, alone in hospital, was exquisite).
Those reviews I linked to are a mixed bag of criticism (Hannah Nicklin’s to my mind is the most in depth and insightful) and divide mainly into two camps: those who think the medium doomed the project to failure, and those who longed for it to be better to really do the most the medium could offer. To my mind, those in the former camp were mostly cynical about the possibilities of the medium to start with, and not au fait enough with the grammar of its performance; the most irritating criticism was of a lack of verisimilitude — as if actors playing on a stage have anything but the most passing resemblance to reality! Those in the latter camp point out the project’s genuine flaws — the acting and writing veered all over the place in terms of quality; the production had a tendency to try and be cool in the way your brash uncle does, not quite getting it; the ARG elements were mostly a thin veneer rather than a deep world; the characters were kind of irritating — while recognising that this is an early experiment in a young medium, that it has made discoveries, that the next such project will be much better, and the next, and the next.
So my message to the creators: don’t be disheartened. I’m a little sad there hasn’t been a massive online celebration, an after-party to celebrate the close of the play, and I rather fear that maybe those involved think it’s failed because of the lack of critical applause. If it failed, it was a glorious failure! — and we can look at what did succeed. Hundreds of followers were engaged and enjoyed themselves, a medium was explored and brought to wider attention, there were some damn good jokes. So — where next? and what does this mean for groups like mine, looking to expand the digital to the stage and the stage to the digital, looking to genuinely bring audiences into performances? Can we expect more well-funded experiments from British institutions? Will we plunge on through sea of myopic naysayers? Or will experiments fizzle out, too worried to push things further on, to real success? We’l see.