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Last year my Latitude journey started with a rush across South London (halfway through which I realised I’d forgotten my oyster card), complete with bags, tent and over-sized Cath Kidston roll mat in order to deliver the major component of not mine, but someone else’s, MA. After that, this year was going to be blissful and stress-free and, crucially, devoid of me swearing at a Goldsmiths College printer.
Or that was the plan.
Now it is raining in Suffolk, the trees are beginning to bend from the wind and I have been sat on a non-moving train somewhere in Essex for almost one hour. And it’s not that I’m stressed – I’m sitting down and not hitting a printer – but more that I’m stuck here whilst the teenage girls on the seats in front of me have begun hitting each other with their roll mats. Then – at the point when I’m considering mild physical violence – we’re unceremoniously dumped off of the train at Colchester station. Overhead line failure! Chaos! Teenagers bound for Latitude!
It continues in this manner for twenty minutes or so, but with added incomprehensible tannoy announcements that go something along the lines of “Baaaaaah…shufffle…rustle…THERE ARE NO TRAINS…rustle…shuffle”, before I’m back on a train with someone else’s luggage in my ear. Thankfully for both you and me (really, do you want another paragraph of my travel woe and increasing need to use exclamation marks?) pretty much the next thing I know I’m on a shuttle bus to the site (luggage taken out of ear), the sun is shining and all that is left is for myself and @cat_elliott to voice our not inconsiderable opinions on the changes that (from the online map) have been made to the Latitude site. For, yes, attendance at three out of five possible Latitudes has filled me with many opinions and views, of which I am not reluctant to share. Because – did anyone else notice that they’ve moved the comedy tent?
Flash forward to arrival and, being a two mallett campsite (smug, us? Well, yes), our neighbours have borrowed my mallett and we’re sat on the grass drinking Pim’s. Which is how any Latitude should begin. Albeit next year I’m going to make sure I check exactly how many of my tent pegs I’ve destroyed before arrival at a windswept campsite.
After the preliminary wander around the site – did I mention that someone moved the comedy tent?, the annual don’t look down toilet trip and a trip to the hog roast van (other than maybe Early Edition and blue splashback jokes, nothing says Latitude to me more than a hog roast. Which probably proves I should spend my time at Latitude eating less pig) it was time, in true WBN form, to check out the theatre tent. Which also has been moved! And only has one entrance! And a queue being marshalled by stewards as opposed to a random free-for-all survival of the fittest. If I could use the word without sounding like a numpty (and believe, I have tried) I’d say awesome.
We’re just in time for Les Enfants Terribles‘s The Vaudevillians which combines song, a murder mystery and pyschopathic puppet. Now before you read on here you should note two things: i)I spent the first half of this show standing at the top of the raked seating (more uncomfortable than it sounds) and ii)it is only partly in jest that a WBN catchphrase for new writing is “cut the first 15 pages!”. As @cat_elliott rather asutely noted the opening monologue of this show sounds like one of those vaguely poetic McDonalds adverts and though it is all very competently done I can’t help but feel that The Vaudevillians spends a lot of time circling before it gets to its point. If I were being flippant I’d say something like SHOW ME THE MONEY here. There are some lovely touches – the mime artist has the kind of pay off that must have made the company squeal with delight when it was realised (and if they didn’t squeal with delight then they should have, it’s good) – but touches can’t disguise a show which is a good twenty minutes longer than it should have been (I’m being a little bit polite here, at one point I thought it might go on forever and I’d have to spend all my Latitude watching it). Plus, and again this is a particular rant of mine, the show was being played on a thrust stage but had clearly been directed for an end-on audience. Not good.
Post The Vaudevillians there was a mass exodus (undoubtedly in a bid to not-quite-see Tom Jones play in the woods) whilst I staked my claim to a prime spot for the RSC’s The Thirteen Midnight Challenges of Angelus Diabolo.
[Interupting this broadcast for some backstory – I know, if I was dramturging this blog post I’d CUT it all: the RSC and I have some Latitude history of the not entirely pleasant kind. I came along to their 2008 show, ostensibly written by Anthony Neilson, fresh off the back of thinking that Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia was one of the most original, brilliant pieces of theatre I’d ever seen. It was midnight, my first Latitude and the RSC. I was expecting magic. And what I got instead were two actors wearing ill-fitting black leggings and reciting lines from Eastenders. By the time the zombies came out of the woods – the one moment when I thought theatrical magic might explode upon us – it was too late. I was filled with contempt that the RSC thought they could treat an audience in this manner just because we were at a festival. I raged at the most basic of misunderstandings. Cut to 2009 and the RSC did manage to pull it round slightly with a solid if not exactly spectacular midnight performance of witchcraft and witchburning that at least gave a nod to its Suffolk setting. Plus this was at least spooky enough that when I saw the lead actor in the foyer of the Globe a few weeks later I was sufficiently spooked by his presence to step backwards and hope he’d stopped the witch burning and all that]
Back to 2010, Angelus Diabolo is a reworking of the Faust story, with an under-talented but over-egotistical actor making a pact with the devil. And, you know what, I’m actually laughing. Proper, this aches slightly laughter. Whilst also cringing slightly for the poor audience member who is unexpectedly dragged on stage to have his bottom fondled. Plus as the play goes on I actually start to feel some of the huge emotional pull that the final minutes of the Faust story bring with it. But – and, oh I hate to have a but given how much more I enjoyed this than 2008’s effort – it still feels under-developed and, well, like the RSC aren’t taking their Latitude effort entirely seriously. Because this one could have been actually good (as opposed to ‘good for the RSC at Latitude’ which isn’t the tag they should be striving for) if they’d shaved off some of the audience indulgence and oh-we’re-the-RSC-we’re-going-to-lampoon-ourselves-for-being-serious-and-Shakespearean. Me, I’d have taken a real-time Angelus vs the Devil final confrontation (because the actor playing Diabolo was more than good enough for it) and had them thrill me to my core. Some times you really shouldn’t be scared of dropping the gimmicks and just being excellent.
And with that it was time to crawl back to the campsite to dream of actors having their fingers cut off…
It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that in the British Theatre Blogosphere (yes, you may shoot me for using that word) Such Tweet Sorrow, the RSC’s twitter adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, has been as well received as a proverbial lead balloon. Or a Montague at a Capulet cabinet meeting if you want a more story-appropriate simile.
I confess – my problems with Such Tweet started quite early on. I’m going to quote Such Tweet‘s Director Roxanna Silbert from an interview that appeared on the Guardian site and see if you can spot where my problems started:
“I think [Shakespeare] would’ve loved it. All you’ve got on Twitter is the actor, the story and the audience. I’ve directed at the Globe where there aren’t lights, sound effects or much staging so in fact there’s something rather pure about this.”
Yep, that would be my highlighting (the academic in me almost put a ‘my emphasis’ note in there). Now twitter might be lots of things, but an actors medium? Really? The elephant in the room would be the word ‘writer’. I could (and will) continue on this point but since I’m here and Silbert has expended words that are so blatantly questionable I can’t help but look a little closer at the comparison between the Globe and twitter (not a sentence I would ever have thought I’d type). Not only is Silbert wrong in her perception of what does or doesn’t make a production at the Globe (need I go any further than Lucy Bailey’s current production of Macbeth to prove her assertion at best outdated, at worst lazy?) but twitter being ‘pure’? One of the joys of the medium is everything you can throw at it – all the twitpics, the audioboos, the YouTube links, the spotify playlists, the blog links, the RTs, the memes…and on and on until you get to doing that quiz to work out which member of NKOTB you should marry. Twitter is about the words – those 140 characters – but it’s also about the noise that goes with it. Coming in unaware – or in denial – of this is to fundamentally misunderstand your tools.
I think many of my problems with Such Tweet stem from this starting point. The failure to address the fact that twitter is a writer’s medium became immediately apparent. Anyone can use twitter. As with anything, some use it better than others. Some people give information, some make me think, some make me smile. Some people use it brilliantly to create – or ape – character (I follow a Malcolm Tucker who is pretty much pitch perfect). Such Tweet, however, requires more than all that. It needs not only character but also story. Whether you’re writing, devising or improvising dialogue (for twitter is dialogue, in all the ways that something can be dialogue) it’s often not about what you say but what you don’t say. It’s the wants the characters feel they must hide or – and this is where it gets more difficult – the wants they don’t know that they have. It’s the much uttered show don’t tell. Don’t write on the nose. All the things that writers get told or learn or ignore and end up writing Days of Our Lives. The “I” form of twitter encourages on the nose writing. We all do it. The best tweeters just do it a lot less than the rest of us. But to be dramatically interesting – to build the connections and the interest that a play demands – Such Tweet should have created some warning system whereby if more than 10% of tweets were of the on the nose variety the actor typing them got a small electric shock.
I can only conclude that even a less cruel-to-actors system wasn’t in place. Had there been discussions about language? About cliché? About reversing audience expectation? About what you can do with the unsaid? In the same interview that Silbert suggested the Globe/Twitter parallel Charlotte Wakefield (Juliet) also said something that made my warning alarms go off:
“I’m nearly 20 so I would normally type in quite a sophisticated way, but a 15-year-old today will use a lot of text speak.”
If that statement were a bucket then it would have a lot of holes in it. Again I lay my prejudices down: if the Goldsmiths teaches you anything it is that a generalised statement in the place of accurate research is, quite frankly, not good enough. Maybe some teenagers do use lots of text speak. Maybe some don’t. But what about the specific teenager you’re portraying? The chances are that when a writer is praised for how accurate their language is they’re being anything but literal. Listen to how a conversation actually goes. Listen to how people communicate. Not only would it make pretty much no sense if it were directly copied down, it would also be incredibly dull (look at verbatim theatre, for every play of that genre that works and is pleasurable to watch/ read there’s at least ten which will make you fall asleep). You need the lexicon but beyond that you need imagination not reality. We’re adapting from Shakespeare – if that doesn’t give you a license to engage your imagination then I don’t know what does. The blunt truth, however realistic or not, is that I (and I imagine others) do not want to read text speak.
It wasn’t until the list of credits that @SuchTweet tweeted today that I became aware that there were writers (plural) involved in the project. Their role (as far as has been declared) was to create the overall narrative and then the mission sheets which the actors were given each day. And here we have another problem. Such Tweet didn’t need a writer (if we take it that the actors are going to devise/ improvise the actual text) – Such Tweet needed a Dramaturg. It needed someone who not only planned the narrative but who dealt with the structural problems that twitter brings with it. Someone who sat down and before a single tweet went live decided what the conventions of the piece should be. Depending on conventions we might accept that people burst into song (and know all the dance steps), that there is a narrator, or direct address, or Pinter pauses. Audiences will go places with you if you set your conventions – and then stick to them. How should the public/private oxymoron of twitter be addressed? Would characters respond (or not) to those outside the narrative? Would they respond to criticism within the play or ignore it? It seemed that no one had sat down and found an answer to these (hugely important) questions. Equally the huge change in tone – and lexicon – midway through from Romeo pointed to the distinct possibility that there hadn’t ever been a character tone (and how a tone might be created) meeting somewhere down the line.
I know I’ve chosen to analyse Such Tweet on its artistic rather than social or marketing merits. I think there is much to be said for how it has clearly engaged an audience (and proven that a twitter full length play might be a feasible prospect). I’m also aware that the project marks a significant experiment in form (of which no one, least of all me sat pontificating here, could have seen the ways it would develop or the problems which would arise). I do know though: I stopped properly following the story one week in. I dipped in and out of the @SuchTweet list for the rest of the project but with something approaching duty rather than real interest (Shakespeare. Twitter. New writing. I couldn’t ever abandon it entirely).
I wanted more. I wanted everything that a play can be. I wanted the RSC to have taken it seriously enough to have thought of all the stylistic/ narrative problems that it would inevitably encounter. I wanted it to not just be a gimmick.
I wanted the writing to be as innovative – and as exciting – as the concept itself was.