Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Pathology of a Bad Idea

You can see how it happened. Channel 4's incomprehensible funding scheme "4iP" which I've heard described by its promoters as "wanting content" and "not about content, its about platforms" depending on whether the audience was a creative or digital one. Then you get one of national institutions, the RSC, who, to Channel 4 and Screen WM and probably everyone else involved is absolutely desperate to get involved with the scheme, because they are the RSC. Then there's this Twitter thing, which probably nobody involved in the decision making is actually involved with, but which everyone seems to be talking about. Then there's that underlying policy document in the bowels of the RSC which means that they need to do this much each year, blah blah blah, to engage young people with Shakespeare. And there's probably a new media officer or department who they simply don't let near the main stage productions, and who works mostly with the marketing or education department. Then there's the excellent Tim Wright, a well-respected figure who makes the link between literature and digital media, and he's worked for the BBC don't you know? and he works for Mudlark, a "cross platform production company" who will presumably make all this difficult stuff happen.

Like a disease you can trace back the spread - but this isn't a disease, this is the much publicised (naturally) bad idea that is a Twitter version of Romeo & Juliet by, yes, the RSC.  With a real cast tweeting over several weeks - improvising for heavens sake! - it's called "Such Tweet Sorrow" and will, I'm sure, be a romp - and given the pedigree of those involved will, I'm sure, be as good as these things can possibly be.

But someone should have stopped this before it even left the ideas floor. What is it about "Romeo & Juliet" that makes it the most malleable of Shakespeare's plays? Perhaps its because the plot is familiar to everyone who has never been near Shakespeare's words - which you probably can't say for Cymbeline. It's a play about young people in love as well - in other words, its the one play that you can take young people to in an unadulterated form and be pretty sure that they'll not only "get" but actually like. But there's something more fundamental here - which was raised when there were some TV adaptions "in modern language" a while back (can't remember if BBC or C4 was to blame for that one) - and that is that without the language, "Romeo & Juliet" is just a plot, and quite a hackneyed one at that; almost certainly one that Shakespeare pillaged from elsewhere. Without the language the tragedy of the story - absurdly melodramatic as it is - would be too much for the most sensationalist of daytime soaps. One assumes that in the odd medium of Twitter, which people will see happening at the same time as everything else going on in your twitter stream, that a "real time" element will have to stick very closely to the Shakespeare plotline, otherwise why even call it Romeo & Juliet? Perhaps its just a hackneyed love story, a teenage romance fired across the digital platforms with no thought to whether this is the right medium, or the right audience - for if its aimed at teens, there aren't that many of them within Twitter's slightly older demographic; and if its aimed at the rest of us - the ex-teens who perhaps left Shakespeare behind when they left school - then what does it give us? In his version, Baz Luhrmann gave us a kicking soundtrack, Danes and DeCaprio, and more importantly, Shakespeare's language. "Such Tweet Sorrow" only seems to exist because there are companies out there who are trying to create dramatic content via social media. It's not even that the Twitter narrative is an innovative idea; Manchester had its own realtime love story, "November in Manchester" which Tom Mason put together last year without a pot of innovation funding, just imagination and some compliant friends.

Its not that I'm against new forms of writing and performance and the incorporation of digital technologies in the medium, it's just the idiocy of this particular idea - and, of course, I only know about it through old media, since despite following most arts organisations in the country who are on Twitter, it was the Guardian who alerted me to it, not the RSC, not Mudlark, not 4iP. And all that press has done it good - there's 3000 or so following the drama already - though I wonder whether you'd be better off catching up in the story via their website than  polluting your usually polite twitter stream with "Are redheads good in beds. Ginger minge or ginger cringe?" (@Mercuteio) or "Hotel breakfast,early but got to be done,especially with this hangover, bit f****d last night" (@LaurenceFriar).

Of course, getting a new writer (rather than W. Shakespeare) to script this wouldn't have got any column inches; actually using Twitter as a normal communication channel (which it is) rather than a teenage-shriekathon (which it really isn't) would have involved genuinely engaging with what the medium is, rather than the media perceptions of it; and reducing teenage experience to the back pages of a a teenage magazine or the last bus home on a Friday night, seems a little cliched and derogatory. Compared to this, Skins is er... Shakespearean in its themes and language and much derided 2 Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps is a comic masterpiece.

As a social experiment, I'm still interested in it, of course, though think all the talent and money and time that has gone into what is a fundamentally bad idea may well have been better used elsewhere. There's plenty of user-created fun on Twitter as it is - whether you're following Samuel Johnson or Molesworth - and what always concerns me about things like this, is that if they succeed (presumably virtual bums on tweetdecks) there will be more of the same, and if they fail, it will stop anyone risking anything genuinely intelligent and creative. I read with interest this posting by Australian poet and theatre critic Alison Croggan where she addresses the vexatious issue of "plays as literature." 

I simply don't buy the argument that plays are not "literary": if there's a text, it exists as an autonomous script as well as a "blueprint for performance", and that text can be read on its own terms. Certainly, some of my favourite literary works are plays.

Most literary readers would agree with her - for me, as well as Shakespeare and Webster - its Churchill and Pinter, Albee and Miller - but theatre these days is apparently not just about the text its about the spectacle. The West End show, the Cirque Du Soleil, Les Miserables, Monkey - they often have literary texts underpinning them ("it's always the book" actors and directors spout out when a musical fails or succeeds beyond expectations), but you get the feeling that more and more people - who should know better - wish that theatre was more like the films, where the writer was dispensable, or could be replaced by a team of impovising actors coming up with text speak to tell the story. This is such a bad idea, because, despite the presence of at least two competent writers, Shakespeare for the source material, and Tim Wright behind the scenes, the writing seems to be what nobody cares about.

But I'll give it a go, nonetheless. I'm following the protagonists; will follow the story. How long before I switch off their babbling will be interesting? Perhaps it is using Twitter's social media capability after all - @julietcap16, stop being so childish, or I'll unfollow you before you can say "Romeo" (who, for some reason, appears not to tweet.)


Anonymous said...

strangely, in a post i made last year about social media I mentioned that if twitter were around in the days of Romeo & Juliet - he would have no cause to stalk outside her window...

and thus no balcony scene: where you @romeo ? let's hookup

romance has taken on a different hue when you can find out information on the object of your desire at the click of a mouse

Adrian Slatcher said...

There's definitely a role for drama (and other art) that addresses new technologies - it would have been Friends Reunited a few years ago, then Myspace, now Twitter. Remember how for years Eastenders characters didn't have mobile phones? The balcony scene would surely be preceded by "bloody hell, 02, I can't get a signal, I'll have to go round Juliets now."