Parting With Such Tweet Sorrow

Theatre

In case you missed the fanfares, trumpets and bemused press, Such Tweet Sorrow was a “live” improvised of Romeo and Juliet. Via Twitter.

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.

Recent Theatre Rant

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I spent a month studying at GITIS in Moscow at the end of last year, which apart from giving me access to an astonishing and foundational theatre culture, gave me a real appetite for Chekhov — undiminished by watching four hour performances, or by achingly boring meandering table rehearsals, or by drowning in Stanislavskian doctrine. So I was pretty excited by the prospect of Filter‘s “ground-breaking” production of Three Sisters at the Lyric. As the programme note argues, 150 years after his birth, Chekhov is ripe for reinvention, for bringing up to date and mercilessly and excitingly mutilating in the way Shakespeare has been for decades.

Sadly, though it’s a good, solid, entertaining, fast-paced &c production, it just isn’t that innovative. It’s in modern dress, sure, and uses modern interpretations of characters. (The blurb and advertising calls this “getting to the essence” of the play — actually it’s just putting characters in a different social context so that they’re more readily understandable to contemporary audiences. So Natasha’s provincial petit-bourgeois is played as an embarrassed country town girl transforming into a ghastly yummy mummy.) There’s a roughly bare stage, and a handful of Brechtian devices. This all works, mostly, and it does help keep the production moving, and keep it interesting. Sadly Filter’s trademark use of sound is mostly an awkward add-on, and some of the “getting to the essence” just becomes Stating The Premise with a hatchet, but it is a good show.

But I want so much more! Is this really what counts for innovation in Chekhov? Tear down that fourth wall. Have characters bouncing around on spacehoppers. Ask the audience what they think. Throw away the script and improvise the whole thing, or have the author come onstage and heckle the actors (actually, I did see that at the Fomenko in Moscow). Ask audience members to roleplay being Natasha to see what it feels like. Do something that isn’t about creating entertaining (thought-provoking if we’re lucky) spectacle. Chekhov can take it! Respect and love the text, yes, but reinvent the form! Contemporary European theatre is laughing at us. Seriously.

I’m not saying we have to go down the route of post-dramatic theatre. Too often that becomes disempowering navel-gazing, the post-modern self deconstructed to the point of total incomprehensibility and social irrelevance. But there are other options. I’ve got myself quite excited about the way of thinking in Interacting Arts magazine (a Swedish publication made five years ago): the manifesto-style call-out for participation in the arts. Empowering, social, entertaining, relevant, important. Open source art: art for everyone, by everyone. They write:

The step from spectator to participant means the democratization of culture, as power over the means of suggestion is then distributed among the many. Participatory arts means that whatever suggestions the participants produce influence what suggestions they recieve, what suggestions other participants recieve, and how these suggestions affect the possibilities of continuing interaction. The framework that diminishes our participation is socially constructed, not dependent on any particular medium. The medium itself rarely limits our opportunities to participate, the understanding of how we are to percieve it does. We could rise up from the spectator seat, climb onto the stage and shout “to be or not to be!” or spray-paint the paintings in an art gallery, but we don’t, because we know our place. We are spectators.

And we do have some of that happening. The best, most innovative and most exciting thing I’ve seen recently was Nic Green’s Trilogy at the BAC. It wasn’t just that the show was a straightforward and active piece of contemporary feminism, happily unabashed at the word “feminist” — because that in itself is very important. It was that the show actively engaged with both the local community (getting 100 local women of all backgrounds and shapes to join in the celebratory nude dance) and the evening’s audience (recruiting the whole crowd for a semi-nude chorus of Jerusalem); it was that the production was an active part of an interactive website and activist social experiment, both an action in its campaign and an encouragement to participate; it was that the performers adopted an honest, simple form of performative direct address that just blazed through post-modern angsts of the performative self with simplicity and judgement; and it was that, though all of these are very new techniques of experimental theatre, and though the content was intellectually and politically challenging, it has been a massive box office  and critical success, both at the Fringe 09 and a mid-length run at the BAC. People bloody loved the show. These techniques are not only worthwhile, not only innovative, but also popular and successful.

So please, let’s bring them into the great texts, and into the new ones, let’s explore them all, let’s redefine theatre. Let’s try and bring not just the content but the form up to date, in relevant and engaging ways. Please.