Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries…

May 21 2010 | By More

The Ben Ashton Interview

By Thom Dibdin

You can forget your Romeo and put your Juliet to one side – when it came to Such Tweet Sorrow, the RSC’s social media version of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, the people’s favourite was Mercutio. Annals of the Edinburgh Stage caught up with Ben Ashton, pin-up boy for the Mercutio Groupies, to talk about uploading those loads, being cute and what it is to die on Twitter.

Of all the characters an actor can perform in Romeo and Juliet, the role of Mercutio is surely the juiciest. He’s the one who has the Queen Mab speech, he’s the cock of the walk, the boy with dubious morals who enters late, grabs the limelight and is back in the Green Room in time for a refreshing draught before R&J have even got down to their nuptial activities.

The downside is that he’s not the one who everyone knows and remembers. In comedy terms, he’s the warm-up act. As much as you might appreciate his performance at the time, when it comes down to the nitty gritty, in Romeo and Juliet it is the title characters who everyone remembers. Mercutio might die, but he goes and gets himself killed, instead of committing that most dubious sin of suicide.

It was not quite thus in Such Tweet Sorrow, the RSC’s social-media based production of Romeo and Juliet, which ran in real time for five weeks until the 12th of May. It was set in a fictional but contemporary English market town where the Montague and Capulet families had been feuding for ten years. With a cast of only six, Mercutio – or @mercuteio as he was known on Twitter – was left to stand in for the whole Montague clan, for a start.

So when Ben Ashton took on the role, there was no waltzing in at the start of Scene IV, with the highfaluting stuff about Mab and her wee pals. Ashton was in there right at the beginning on day one. And by the time @mercuteio died, three weeks later, he might not have been the most followed of all the company, but he was the one who got all the mentions.

Maybe it was his banter about the extra “e” in his name making him cute, or the way he simply tweeted “sonnet 129” at Romeo when the lad got all stupefied from love (go and look it up – half his followers did and in one fell swoop justified the whole decision of the RSC to indulge in Twitter). What ever the the reasons or the results, Ashton, it seems, lapped up the whole experience.

“I loved it,” he says emphatically. “It was such a new thing. I have done a few professional acting jobs but this was all-encompassing for three weeks, pretty much non-stop. When my last tweet was happening, there was a genuine sense of ‘Oh no! What am I going to do now?’.”

What, indeed. For most performers whose character is destined to snuff it, no matter their level of immersion in the role, it is a fleeting event. To die might be an awfully big adventure, but they get to do it every night of the week. Not so in a production played out in real time, and occurring just the once.

“I will never tweet as Mercutio ever again”

“There was a definite finality,” Ashton recalls. “I did feel a massive sense of loss. Normally when you are doing a show and your character has to die, you know that in ten minutes you are going to be up and walking around. In this one, you know that that’s it,” he pauses and lets the words roll out with an even emphasis, “That. Is. It! It is no more. I will never tweet as Mercutio ever again.”

There is a real freshness and charm in speaking to Ben Ashton. He has a sensitivity which was not immediately apparent in the way he played Mercutio – although many of his female followers would no doubt beg to differ.

Aged 25, he studied at the Bristol Old Vic theatre school for three years, graduating in 2008 and going straight into the RSC’s production of Romeo and Juliet. After touring nationally, the production returned to Stratford.

Besides playing Paris, the young man chosen by Juliet’s father to be her husband, he was understudy to the role of Mercutio. While he never got to go on stage as an understudy, the knowledge gained from the production was enough to put him in a prime position for Such Tweet Sorrow, known as #suchtweet to its followers.

When the first #suchtweet preproduction experiments in Twitter started back in the autumn of last year, the writers and director wanted performers who had been immersed in the characters and knew their lives. In the initial workshops last November, they first tried tweeting and discussing how the whole production would would work.

“In the initial stages there were three of us from the original production,” says Ashton. “Myself, Geoffrey (Newland, who played Friar) and Mark (Holgate) who played Tybalt. Then there were three other performers from the original play who were workshopping Romeo, Juliet and the Nurse.

“That was a week, trying to find out how the hell this would work – and whether it would work. Initially in the workshops we were all very sceptical. Some of us weren’t used to Twitter at all – I set up an account but I didn’t really go on it.”

That early practice run succeeded in ironing out some of the difficulties and showing the performers how they could begin to translate Shakespeare into tweets. Although the show had two writers and a director, they only provided a basic grid of how the plot would fall out. The performers were left to improvise their character’s tweets themselves.

“For the actual production we had a week rehearsal and that really knuckled down the storyline and we talked about back story. Then it was just a case of the first week we were all just finding our own way and getting used to Twitter. From the audience feedback we were tweeting far too much and we were all just finding it out about it – we were all learning all the way through it, basically.”

So did he follow the #suchtweet ‘hashtag’, as it is known in Twitter Land, which would have allowed him to see what all his followers were saying about his performance?

“I tried not to follow the hashtag,” he says. “If you read what people are saying, you might get locked into trying to be liked, or what ever. So I tried not to. Most of the time I was just following the characters I would follow, and I would talk to people who would talk to me.

“Occasionally I wold look at the hashtag and I did see that some people were saying they had seen the jokey side of Mercutio, and they wanted to see the Queen Mab serious side to him. That was interesting as an actor because I knew those moments would come, but they would be quite fleeting. As a character, Mercutio doesn’t really want people to know that he was longing for company, or what ever it was. Those moments were in there, just by what the character was doing like trying to get Romeo’s attention.

“There wasn’t a Queen Mab speech in the production, there was nothing like that,” he continues. “There was a character called Mabby Queen and there were some references to her having long legs – and things like that. But as a speech, there was nothing like it in the build-up to the party. That was a shame, but with 140 characters it is so hard. We were never going to replicate Shakespeare and we weren’t even trying to because you just can’t do it.”

If Ashton was sceptical about Twitter being able to convey Shakespeare, he was even more concerned about the 140 character limit allowing him to do justice to his character.

“I was really worried, because Mercutio is the character that everyone wants to play, it is the fun role – everyone seems to like that character,” he admits. “I was very concerned and worried that maybe via Twitter people wouldn’t quite get Mercutio. He is supposed to be intellectually witty. He has got to have quite a multilayer character about him. But people seemed to like it – and I was very humbled by the Mercutio Groupies.”

That last is a reference to a group of the production’s 5,000 odd followers who first fell for @mercuteio’s cheeky charms, then slowly began to realise that if the production was going to follow its natural course, then their favourite character was going to have to die. Facebook pages were set up, a Save Mercutio group started and the Mercutio Groupies lobbied hard and furious to try and change the course of the drama. They even went so far as to tempt @mercuteio out for carnal pursuits instead of attending events where they thought he would meet his end.

“They thought he was gong to die at the Ping Pong tournament,” laughs Ashton, of an event during the production organised by Laurence Friar in a vain attempt to reconcile the Montague and Capulet families. “That was quite funny because everyone was going ‘Oh no! It’s going to happen!’ – and as actors we all knew it was not going to happen for a few more days.”

Meanwhile, the commentators were all remarking on @mercuteio’s popularity. The question was whether it was his popularity that meant he had the most involved interaction with the audience of all the characters, or whether the audience interaction come because he was popular.

“It was more how the writers had placed Mercutio’s character,” says Ashton. “He was trying to be the entertainer, trying to get people to be involved with things. He seemed to be more of the character who was trying to grab a wide range of people – for whatever reason that was, whether it was loneliness or something else, I don’t know.

“With that kind of character you can play along,” he continues. “He was a bit more of a womaniser in this production than he is in the original Romeo and Juliet where we don’t really know about his love life and he doesn’t seem to be happy about love. He just seems to be get in there and get out. That’s it.”

Which leads on to another surprise success of the production. It wasn’t quite the audience participatory event that it could have become – if it had gone out of control – but an emphatically non-politically correct hit: Upload That Load. In which @mercuteio and @romeo_mo would use their mobile phones to take illicit photographs of unsuspecting women’s cleavages, while the pals were out on the lash, then upload them to their TwitPics account.

“At the beginning people were not quite sure about it,” begins Ashton with something of an understatement. “They were a bit shocked and didn’t quite like it. But as it went on they realised that it was just a bit of fun and boys will be boys. I am sure many people do this. It was very hard work as an actor trying to get those pictures, but someone had to do it.

So how did Ashton get the raw material for Upload That Load? Did he brazenly ask his friends to bare all in the name of the Bard, or did he go down the total immersion route?

“Pretty much all of them were friends of mine. I asked if they minded showing a bit of cleavage and they were fine with it,” he explains. “Maybe there were a couple that were sneaky upload that loads, just so I could get the feel of it, the pressure of whether I would get caught and things like that. But most of them, yeah they were friends.”

What Upload That Load did show about the production was that it would not work if confined itself purely to Twitter. It was really a social media production, with all that entails – from links to YouTube and AudioBoo, where you can record and upload voice messages, to the various picture hosting sights.

“if you get pictures of people being out and videos of silly people miming to silly songs, then you get a bit more of a feel for the character”

“The social media thing really enhanced the production,” agrees Ashton. “Tweets are absolutely fine, but then if you get pictures of people being out and videos of silly people miming to silly songs, then you get a bit more of a feel for the character. You get a glimpse of them and that makes it all the more real.

“Mercutio’s character wants people to know who he is,” Ashton continues “I guess people perform on Twitter – it is putting your name out there and making everyone aware of what you are doing. I think Mercutio revelled in that. He likes to party, he likes to AudioBoo, take pictures and play office games. He wanted the limelight, he wanted people to know who he was, I guess.”

All this helped Ashton find his character and during the first week of the production he was out and about, flirting with his followers in a way that is utterly inconceivable in a stage production, but which makes absolute sense when it comes down to Twitter.

If it was in the brief of the character he had been given, and outlined in the mission statements he was given every day, it turns out that the show’s producers’ feet got a bit cold at the hard reality of the interaction, as they told Ashton at the first of the company’s Monday lunchtime meetings, when they met to review the production’s progression.

“At our first meeting, they said cut down on the flirting, just in case,” he reveals. “They were saying ‘We don’t know who is out there’ and all that kind of thing. But I still felt that it was what @mercuteio would do. The background to his character was that he would have a new girl practically every night, so I still did it quite a bit of flirting during the whole production. It was good fun!”

Besides the character-initiated audience interactions, there were several people who tweeted as if they were in the production, but who weren’t. There was a BoyParis, a Romeo echo by the name of Romeo_mon, a BenVolio and Rosaline. All of whom were quite obviously not a part of the show and who generally tried to add something to it, rather than spoil it by heckling.

“We had no idea who they were,” says Ashton. “romeo_mon was my fault because when Romeo came on I miss-typed romeo_mon instead of Romeo_mo. Someone quickly cottoned on to that and grabbed that. So that was bizarre, that someone would try to be romeo_mon. And BenVolio I quite liked what he was doing, playing a a character and going along with it.

“I didn’t have a problem, he didn’t seem to spoil early on in the first stage. But I think that when people talked to BenVolio and asked him not to play along, he then started to add some spoilers.”

If that was the whole point of the production, getting a new audience involved and enjoying the story, the first big event involving the whole audience was the masked ball where Romeo met Juliet. With a party track list put up on Spotify so all the followers could listen together, they tweeted back and forth to each other as they waited for events to unfold. Of course when the lovers went off to be alone, that left @mercuteio to go out on his own to continue the party.

“People were tweeting asking where I was going,” remembers Ashton. “It was great, but I didn’t actually party. I did stay up later and went to bed at half one, but I was stuck on my computer at home.”

The big social events were the turning points of the production. They were when the whole audience could get involved, creating a general hubbub of activity while the actors floated the real-time plot development over the top. First at the party, then the Ping Pong tournament, and finally – at least so far as @mercuteio was concerned – the local football derby on the May Day bank holiday.

That was the fateful day on which it had been decided that @mercuteio would die. And a day in which all Ben Ashton’s resources as an actor were to be stretched to the limit.

“We knew it was coming early on and it was being dragged out,” he explains. “Mercutio’s death didn’t happen until later in the evening. At the football, I am sure everyone could sense that there was danger, just from the tweets. They had an ironic stance to them and we were having far too much fun.

“Getting stabbed and then having silence for a while was very odd. You could feel people urgently tweeting “what’s going on?” and getting quite frustrated and wanting to know what was happening.”

Which, as it turned out, was just the build up. The finality was to come later, much later, with a series of tweets that had followers glued to their Twitter feeds in a way that hardly seems possible. @mercuteio had been taken to hospital and tweeted some joke about being given the kiss of life. Then silence.

“I made sure that I was all by myself that night,” says Ashton. “I just shut myself up in my room to try to make myself as lonely as possible. That is what I think is interesting about Mercutio. Obviously he wants to be the entertainer, he wants to be the funny man, but that is because there is a lot going on underneath.

“I think he was very lonely and didn’t like to be on his own at all. He was very upset about his best friend’s loyalty. If you think about it, throughout the whole show Romeo wasn’t really a great friend. Every time a girl came along he ditched his mates. Mercutio was loyal, he wanted to be part of the family and I think at the end he was very, very angry and very scared…”

As Ben recalls that fateful evening, the cheerful voice begins to crack, and you can almost hear him choking back the tears.

“Yeah, when you are playing a character for four weeks and him dying, it was really…” and he pauses to collect himself. “I felt sadness, I felt a bit of pressure that this was the end of someone’s life – and how are you going to do it? Are you going to do something too cheesy, are people not going to like it. How do you do the “Plague on both your houses” line? That was something I really wanted to get right or have a massive impact.

“I did speak to the writer,” he continues. “Normally you just tweet away and improvise, but with something like that I wasn’t sure how to do it. Do I go for “A plague on both your houses!”, or do I come up with a new one. We decided that we come up with a new one. And then I don’t know, I just came up with that final tweet that I did: ‘May both your families rot in hell! Fuck #teammontague from now on its only #teammercutio’.”

It was good, but it wasn’t actually his final tweet. That was a link to a YouTube video of Pat O’Malley in a depression-busting 1931 arrangement of the Henderson-DeSylva-Brown tune Life is just a bowl of cherries.

“I found that quite early on,” says Ashton. “I was listening to the song and I thought that the lyrics were what the character would want to put out there, even though he wasn’t feeling that good. He would want people to think that that was how he was feeling.”

It was, indeed, a fitting end. People cried real tears at Mercutio’s online funeral, despite themselves. It was a testament both to the power of the story, but more than that, it was a testament to Ben Ashton’s ability as an actor.

So what’s next for Ben Ashton?

“I have had a recall for a production,” he says. “I am waiting to hear back on that and it is just back into the scary world of trying to get the next acting job. That’s life as an actor. That is what was so good about Such Tweet Sorrow – you were fully immersed into it. When it ended, I kept on going to my computer thinking I’d better check Twitter. Then I’d remember. I’m dead.”


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  1. Jessica says:

    Wonderful interview, thanks to Thom and Ben both!