Thus with a tweet I die…

May 15 2010 | By More
After an emotional five weeks Such Tweet Sorrow, the RSC’s social media production of Romeo and Juliet, is done. The Annals of Edinburgh Stage interviewed James Barrett, #suchtweet Romeo, about the experience.

Romeo's initial profile picture on Such Tweet Sorrow

By Thom Dibdin

It took its time getting off the ground, and sprang surprises on the audience, the performers and the production company alike, but as Such Tweet Sorrow drew to its tragic conclusion this week, it could not be considered anything but a success.

Not necessarily the unqualified success that the production’s detractors thought it ought to have been. But who really expects a production that brings theatre to an untried medium to produce perfection the first time round?

As experimental theatre it did everything you could have wanted. It brought tears, it brought laughter and it brought true emotional empathy to those who sat watching. That seems to be enough for the moment. The tweaks will follow.

For the performers, however, even the end of the show brought a completely new experience. Actors are used to inhabiting their characters for two hours every night – twice on a Saturday perhaps and with a day or two off out of every seven. In #suchtweet, which was played out in real time, they had to be aware of what their characters were doing at every moment, for the whole five weeks, as James Barrett who played Romeo explains.

“It was inhabiting the character to an extent that I had never heard of, let alone done before,” he says. “It was something else really – sometimes your first tweet was at eight o’clock in the morning, and your last tweet was at eleven at night.

“There was what I was doing, what James was doing, throughout the day and what Romeo was doing. I was constantly thinking Romeo. It is strange – suddenly I am not living two lives at the same time. I’ve got all my life back, which is very nice – but I do miss it!”

It was more even than that. The tweets which the characters sent out into the world were improvised by the performers. It was all based on a very structured timetable, however, with the actors provided a daily mission from the production’s two ‘writers’.

“We had the five week grid which was very basic,” explains James. “It was morning, afternoon and evening for each day of the the five weeks. So we kind of knew what was coming up on what day. Then every morning we would get emailed a daily mission which was about two or three pages long.

How Romeo appeared to his followers after he had met Juliet

“On that would be what you needed to do that day; what was happening in the production; what other characters were doing; real world events that you might want to mention; stuff that your character didn’t know and didn’t find out, that your character wasn’t aware of. Then at the bottom was a very detailed grid, hour by hour, of what we had to be tweeting and what our characters were doing.”

Such detail was vital for the production to work. One wrongly tweeted comment and the whole pretence would collapse. On stage an actor who pre-empts a sound cue or another performer’s line will just raise a laugh and maybe look a little silly as the performance quickly moves on. Not so in the slow, real-time unfurling on Twitter.

“The tweet is there for ever,” says James, “and we were all in separate places with nothing to go off from each other, so it was very challenging.”

It is that very challenge that drew James to the role. He’d not played Romeo before and has only been in the business for a few years.

“One of the great things about acting is doing stuff that is brand new,” he says. “The idea of being the 350th Shakespearean character can seem a bit ‘what’s the point?’. This had the satisfaction of being able to say I performed Romeo for the RSC – but doing it in a totally brand new way – one that had never ever been done before.

“It was so exciting to have such a brilliant character, but telling it in such a new way. It was the best of both worlds.”

Romeo, when on the ran-dan with Mercutio

One of the great surprises of the whole production was the depth of feeling in the audience for the character Mercutio. It all started when Romeo and Mercutio went for a night on the tiles. James and Ben Ashton, who played Mercutio, decided to go out clubbing in Reading, and the realism began to catch the audience’s imagination.

So much so that, as the production wore on and the audience began to realise that Mercutio would die, a whole band of the followers formed themselves into the “Mercutio Groupies”. Dedicated to trying to save Mercutio, they were devastated at his death.

“Ben did it fantastically,” says James magnanimously. “His last couple of tweets, I thought, were fantastic. I wasn’t surprised at all by the audience reaction. It was what he deserved.

“The medium of Twitter meant it was the first time an audience had been given the opportunity to do something like that in a performance of Romeo and Juliet,” he continues. “Mercutio is a very charismatic character and obviously in the theatre people aren’t going to start talking to each other and being in a group.

“The great thing about doing it on Twitter was the audience participation. The Mercutio groupies were just a really strong example of how connected the actors were with the audience. It was very strange because in some ways it was the most isolated performance I think I could ever do as an actor – but then there was an immediacy of everything because of the way that the audience could give you feedback straight away.

“It was like doing a theatre show, but in the show going to the front door and every single member of the audience telling you, to your face, exactly what they thought of you. And doing that for every line that you say. That kind of immediacy was very evident throughout the whole thing and I think the Mercutio groupies were a brilliant example of that.”

The audience response and interaction during the performance was a key element of its success. Whether they were entertained or upset, they let the actors know. If they were not always complimentary, as James points out, it doesn’t matter how the audience react, so long as they do react. So was he ever tempted to join in that reaction?

James Barrett's own Twitter profile picture

“I was very tempted,” he admits. “There were some very dramatic points where people would tweet hilarious things, like a really funny video at a really emotional point in the play. Part of me really wanted to go ‘Oh that video is great, I loved that video’, but obviously you have got to stay in role and tell the story.

“Sometimes I really wanted to interact with the audience when I couldn’t, but I did interact where it was appropriate to the story and it was appropriate for the character to do so.”

One of the biggest criticisms of the whole project was a perceived lack of verisimilitude. In the opening scenes, to have the six characters communicating to each other while telling the story meant that some tweets were not exactly as you might tweet in real life. But if the performers had any problems finding their Twitter voices from the start, the big difficulty was ensuring that the critical scenes were portrayed accurately.

No more so than in Romeo and Juliet’s final moments. When they are alone with each other’s prone bodies, why would they tweet about it to the world?

“That was the biggest concern for me before I took the job on,” James admits, quite frankly. “Obviously I know how the story ends, so how could we convey that truthfully? In the original play Romeo and Juliet are so lonely and they have nothing left at the end.

“Twitter gives the ordinary man a voice. It doesn’t matter who you are, you can express yourself on it. I think it was very easy to see, in our production, that it was the only way that these two characters who have lost everything can express themselves. I thought it worked really truthfully to the story and I think – from where I am – I think it was believable. I hope it was!”

And to be fair, it was believable from the audience’s point of view. When Romeo’s demise came, it was not banal, as some had feared. It was a fitting end to a character who had grown into his audience’s hearts – and certainly worth waiting the five weeks to witness.

The Such Tweet Sorrow plot with a timeline of all the tweets is still available to see on the Such Tweet Sorrow website.


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Comments (5)

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  1. Lumilyon says:

    Great interview! Thanks to James and the rest if the SuchTweet cast and crew. Your bravery gave us a fantastic, roller-coaster five weeks!

  2. Mary says:

    I think the death scenes were all the more engaging for *not* being as explicit as they might be in a visual medium. We never saw a corpse. What we saw was characters we’d been interacting with for five weeks get very upset, be very talkative for a while, and then go silent. This evoked a very real desire to know what was happening – just as you would for any friend who was upset and then uncontactable – a feeling of concern and dread which was prolonged, in some cases, for hours.

    Especially with the uncertainty. We know Merc dies after the fight with Tybalt… but he hasn’t delivered the “plague on both your houses” line or anything like it… He tweeted! He’s in the hospital! He’s alive! Hang on, he’s gone all quiet again… oh well, he’s in a hospital and injured, maybe he’s asleep… and so on until another character definitively reports that he is dead.

    The less explicit things are, the more uncertainty and thought is required, the more semantic engagement there is, the more meaningful it becomes.