By Dr Nora Williams
It’s both an unusually stressful and unusually exciting time to be a scholar of early modern drama in performance: every day, it seems, a new production is made available online, free to stream to one’s own home. Noticing an abundance of productions of Shakespeare’s late play A Winter’s Tale becoming available, Peter Kirwan and I decided to set up a series of casual Twitter watch-alongs, timed to culminate with the premiere of the 2018 Shakespeare’s Globe production. Our first event was last week, on 21 April, with the Cheek by Jowl production.
The event’s setup is simple: Pete and I announce a production and a coordinated watch time via social media, and encourage people to watch along with us and tweet their thoughts in real-time using #WTWatchParty. On the day, we send out a five-minute warning and press play on the stream at the same, along with whoever is joining in. We take a ten-minute interval, at which point we pause the stream together, and then we resume at an agreed time. This way, although we’re each watching from our own homes and devices, we have a sense of experiencing the show together.
Recent research by scholars such as Rachael Nicholas explores how streaming theatre ‘harnesse[s] the possibilities of personal digital technologies to engage their remote audiences’ (2018: 77). In that vein, several of us in last week’s #WTWatchParty commented on the joys of being able to share thoughts on the production in real time through Twitter. Rather than waiting until the interval to download and process our thoughts with each other, we were trading tweets throughout the performance, creating a kind of running commentary.
These comments ranged from evaluative to analytical, from joking comments on Polixenes and Camillo’s poor disguises to emotional expressions of outrage at Leontes’ behaviour. More than once, I sent off a tweet only to see another member of the watch party saying something very similar, at virtually the same time. We expressed our rage together as Leontes rejected the Oracle in Act 3; we revelled in the appearance of Time wearing a romper at the top of Act 4; we gasped in (virtual) unison as Hermione’s statue was revealed in Act 5. Despite being geographically separated, we experienced the emotional journey of the show together.
At other times, we engaged in productive discussions about our readings of particular moments: one especially fruitful thread emerged on the production’s treatment of the tail end of Act 4, Scene 4. In the Cheek by Jowl production, this exchange between Autolycus, the Clown and the Old Shepherd was staged in an airport departures lounge, with Autolycus as a power-drunk security agent who insisted on searching their bags, viewing their extensive immigration papers and, finally, physically beating the Clown. Viewing this scene in the context of a pandemic that prevents us from travelling across international borders, as well as from post-Brexit Britain in a group that included a number of immigrants, raised several questions and observations around class, race, and civil rights among the #WTwatchparty members.
It’s highlighting for me the ease with which the high-born characters travel compared to the Old Shepherd and the Clown — no one asks Florizel or Polixenes or even Antigonus (as far as we see) for their papers, for oath-swearing, for the contents of their luggage #WTwatchparty https://t.co/OqvPK0i6zG
— Dr N🏠ra J Williams (@noraj_williams) April 21, 2020
My co-host, Peter Kirwan, is also the author of an excellent book on Cheek by Jowl, and his insider knowledge of the company and their practices yielded some exciting details about the rehearsal process. Having his tweets running alongside the production created something like a DVD commentary feature, where we were given access to titbits of process that aren’t usually visible in the final ‘product’ of the performance.
For example, Pete was able to give us a great deal of detail about the choices made for the Act 4 sheep-shearing festival, which is typically staged as an almost psychedelic explosion of flowers and colours. Cheek by Jowl’s more sombre affair, Pete told us, hinged upon the team’s unique interpretation of a single line, which suggested that the Old Shepherd’s wife was only recently deceased and that this was their first year hosting the festival without her.
They did an etude where they imagined last year's festival, with Joy Richardson playing the Shepherd's wife, and doing all the sheep-shearing preparation like a well-oiled machine with the mother at the heart of it. Then they removed her. #WTwatchparty
— Peter Kirwan (@DrPeteKirwan) April 21, 2020
Such a simple thing to pick up on – the absence of the mother – but suddenly the Bohemia scenes became about the loss of a family member in a way that tied the production back together. #WTwatchparty
— Peter Kirwan (@DrPeteKirwan) April 21, 2020
If you’d like to take part in future events, we’re planning on at least three more #WTWatchParty events between now and June. Join us on Tuesday 5 May at 19:00 BST to share the Royal Opera’s stream of Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet version. Later in the month, we’ll be watching the Globe’s 2018 production and the 2012 Globe to Globe production by Nigerian company The Renegade Theatre.
Kirwan, Peter (2019) Shakespeare in the Theatre: Cheek by Jowl. London: Bloomsbury Arden.
Nicholas, Rachael (2018) ‘Understanding “New” Encounters with Shakespeare: Hybrid Media and Emerging Audience Behaviours’ in Shakespeare and the ‘Live’ Theatre Broadcast Experience, eds. Pascale Aebischer, Susanne Greenhalgh, and Laurie Osborne. London: Bloomsbury Arden.