While Stratford is gearing up for the Shakespeare birthday celebrations this weekend, I’m winding down as I prepare to go on leave for a little while. During that time, this blog will most likely remain silent, though I certainly hope to continue thinking about Shakespeare and digital culture while away! In the last couple of months I’ve had two journal articles published on the topic, and this summer I have a book chapter coming out. All three pieces of writing have been greatly informed by discussions begun on this blog, so I’d like to say a special thank you to everyone who’s taken the time to read my posts and comment on them, either online or in person. Here are the references to the publications if you’re interested:
I’ve also received some great emails from people creating their own digital Shakespeares. I leave you with a video from Ben Yackshaw, featuring a human and a robot sitting down to discuss Romeo and Juliet 🙂
On 18 May I’ll be leading a workshop on ‘Understanding reception in a digital age’ as part of the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Advanced Studies. Below is a description of the event and the schedule for the day. If you’re a researcher at UoB or an artist in the Midlands region and are interested in attending, please get in touch!
Digital connectivity is radically reshaping how we engage with culture in the 21st century. Whether it’s the books we read, the music we listen to, the theatre we see, or the people with whom we interact, new technologies are remapping the way we access, consume, create, and share cultural experience. This one-day workshop will explore the impact such changes are having on the study of reception across the humanities and social sciences.
Since Stuart Hall’s ground-breaking work in field in the 1970s, the University of Birmingham has been at the forefront of debates about how people interact with culture and the meaning they derive from it. This workshop will build on this long history of interdisciplinary, grassroots thinking by investigating how digital technology is changing both the methods and the objects of reception-oriented research. It will consider how audiences are becoming increasingly active co-producers or ‘pro-sumers’ of artistic works through collaborative digital media, how the data produced through digital encounters might be used to generate new creative projects and formulate new research agendas, and how environment and materiality still shape cultural experience in the supposedly de-localised and disembodied world of online interaction. It will ask how we can best study audience, reader, listener, and user experience in a digital age, making the most of the new methods available to us and the new ways in which people are interacting with and creating culture.
The workshop aims to bring together expertise in reception studies and the digital humanities from across the University, and also to strengthen partnerships with artists and cultural programmers conducting practice-based work in the field. It will showcase the findings of several externally funded projects based at the University, and it will build upon strategic developments in digital research. Each panel will feature three brief presentations from academics and artists, leaving 20-30 minutes per session for further discussion among all the workshop participants. The day will conclude with a one-hour, guided roundtable session, which will result in a list of key questions for the field, identify possibilities for follow-on projects and funding, and outline next steps for digital culture and reception research at UoB.
10.30-10.40 Introduction and aims for the day – Erin Sullivan (Shakespeare Institute)
10.40-11.30 Data – Michaela Mahlberg (Language and Linguistics), Rowanne Fleck (Computer Science), Di Wiltshire (visual/performance artist)
11.50-12.40 Co-production – Caroline Chapain (Business School), Helen Abbott (Modern Languages), Annie Mahtani (Music/composer and curator)
1.40-2.30 Space – Patricia Noxolo (Geography), Matt Hayler (Literature), Katie Day (theatre director)
A second post inspired in part by Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, and the final one — I think — about my research adventures in the US last month.
So I’ve finished Benjamin’s essay now. At a whopping 10 pages, this perhaps isn’t saying much, but the intelligence, weight, and importance of the ideas presented there are not to be digested hastily. I’m still not sure if I know where Benjamin ultimately stood on the issue of technology’s impact on art: it seems clear that he’s disconcerted, dismayed even, by the way reproduction erases a work’s history and erodes its aura. He compares such a process to prying an oyster from its shell — though he doesn’t say it explicitly, the metaphor is surely one of death. ‘Art has left the realm of the “beautiful semblance”‘, he writes, leaving his readers with the lingering question, what happens next?
I’ll come back to that question at the end of this piece, but before that I want to think a bit more about aura, authenticity, aliveness, and digitization. As I mentioned in my last post, over the past few weeks I’ve been working on an essay about ‘aliveness’ during theatre broadcasts to cinemas and online. For me, ‘a-liveness’ is the less visible but just as important cousin of ‘liveness’, that ever-present topic in discussions of performance, technology, and mediation. What does it mean for something to be live, especially in a digital age? I won’t go into the details of the debate now, but my own response to Philip Auslander’s game-changing book, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, can be found here.
What interests me most in this debate aren’t the details of time and space that have often been taken to constitute different degrees of liveness, but rather the experiential and emotional pull that a work of art elicits when we feel its aliveness — by which I mean its vivacity, immersiveness, and depth, its irresistible demand. While liveness in terms of shared time and space can often enhance and even create a feeling of aliveness, I don’t think that it’s absolutely essential to the experience. In my essay, I’m exploring this idea by looking at how audiences at theatre broadcasts use social media — specifically Twitter — to form online communities of shared experience even when they are located at a distance from one another. In such moments I think we can see audiences ‘doing liveness’, to quote Martin Barker, whose research into live-broadcasting I have blogged about here.
Though my work so far has focused on aliveness as an audience activity and even construction — part of the surrounding context for the work of art — as I’ve been writing I’ve also been thinking more about the aliveness that arises from the work of art itself. This seems to me to be very much akin to Benjamin’s aura: it’s that ineffable substance that draws you in, that makes a work of art present, unignorable, captivating, thrilling. The question of what exactly this substance is is worth a series of blog posts in and of itself, so I’m going to resist attempting to answer it here other than to say that, in my view, it is most certainly about aesthetics (a statement that should seem blindingly obvious, but that has become somewhat marginalized in recent decades). Beyond that, I’ll simply offer an image of a work of art that for me is very much alive, in the spirit of showing rather than telling.
Those who know me well may recognize this image from the cover of my first solo-authored book; a further few may be aware of the fact that it’s a painting that privately obsesses me. This is partly down to contextual issues: why had I never heard of the artist, Lavinia Fontana, before 2013, and how did this extraordinary woman manage to become such an accomplished and successful painter in seventeenth-century Italy? Even more important though are the aesthetic issues: for me, this is a sumptuously engrossing painting, startling in its power of presence.
Interesting, then, that until a month ago I had never seen it in person. I first encountered it online, during a standard search for free images that I might use in a seminar publicity flyer, and later through the website of the Walters Art Museum, which through the institution’s tremendous generosity makes high-resolution images of most of its collection available to the public for free (authors, take note!). In fact, when I emailed the museum to see if I could reproduce this painting on the cover of my book, the staff there not only agreed, but also sent me a 275MB TIFF file. For those not in the know (like me), it turns out that this is really big — much bigger in fact than the original painting from which it was made.
It also means that you can zoom very, very deeply into the image, examining tiny details like the shimmer on each of Signora Hercolani’s pearls or the absorptive gaze in her eyes. When you do this, whatever part of the painting you are exploring, you also realize how much of it is made up of rich, inky darkness. Zooming into the painting is like venturing into the widow Hercolani’s very being, which fills up the frame with its cavernous, shadowy presence even as the work’s symbolic focal points, the loyal dog and the pure white handkerchief, point to her recently departed husband. In her eyes and in this darkness, the painting — for me — becomes all about her.
So when I found myself in Washington, DC last month I wasted no time in making arrangements to get up to Baltimore to visit the Walters Art Museum and see this painting in person. Thinking back on the afternoon, I remember being not only full of anticipation, but actually rather nervous. What if the painting wasn’t actually on display, despite the fact that the museum website confirmed that it would be? What if I couldn’t find it? How would it be displayed? But, most importantly of all, how would I feel when I saw it?
After some shuffling between rooms I did at last find her, and I was impressed, though not in the way I expected. There it was, this painting that had not only fascinated me for years, but that also stood synecdochally for my own intellectual ambitions and achievements, made material in a book on a shelf back in England. I instantly fell in love with it again, but for different reasons than before: now, it was the love of recognition, of self-affirmation, of fulfillment. What it really wasn’t, to my surprise, was the love of unmistakable aesthetic power. This is not to say that the painting was and is anything other than extraordinary. Rather, it’s that looking at it and into it in person was not, in fact, as powerful for me as engaging with it digitally.
This might be down to the fact that it was now familiar: the shock of the new was gone. Perhaps more significantly, the museum’s method of displaying the painting veers more towards the decorative than the aesthetically imposing. Positioned above three smaller works, the painting is mounted well above human eye-line, meaning that there is no chance of meeting Signora Hercolani’s gaze straight-on. Perched on high, she is suitably imperious, authoritative, and aloof — all qualities that I had previously seen in the painting — but gone is the intimacy that I now realize was so impactful in my first encounter with this work.
What this is all pointing to, as some might already suspect, is my realization there in the Walters that for me the aura and aliveness of the digital image was much stronger than being physically in the presence of the painting in Baltimore. Some of this is certainly contextual, but a good part of it is also formal. There is simply something about the digital image that I love that is not there in person.
In many ways this personal reflection is positioned as a rejoinder to Benjamin and his belief that aura always sided with the physical, original work. But in another sense, it’s not, because Benjamin himself recognizes in his essay that the ‘mechanically’ produced work comes with its own startling advantages. One is the potential for ‘simultaneous collective experience’, while another is the ‘incomparably more precise’ representation of certain actions. But most significant of all is the way new technologies open up the possibility of new worlds of experience in art: ‘a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye … The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject.’
This has certainly been my experience with Fontana’s portrait of Hercolani — so much so that I was unsettled and even disappointed when those new worlds of formation were suddenly closed off to me in person. But to return to my very first question, where does that leave us? Benjamin doesn’t offer much by way of a definitive answer: in the final pages of his essay, he turns to a dark reflection on the growth of Fascism in his own time, and the way Futurist artists like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti were celebrating technology as an integral part of an aesthetics of destruction. He also talks about the use-value of art, about audiences, and about the way the technological arts cater the distracted masses rather than the focused observer. In many ways, the conversation really hasn’t changed, and as I read it I found myself agreeing with most of his essay. One thing I do know, however, is that my own encounter with the Hercolani portrait in digital form has been all about concentration, absorption, and auratic experience. It is in this form that the painting, for me, has truly come to life.
‘…profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful…’
When Walter Benjamin decided to start his now-famous essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, with these words from Paul Valéry, his attitude towards the future they envisioned might be described as ambivalent at best. Writing in 1936, in the early years of what would become the golden age of film, Benjamin, like Valéry, recognized the potential for technology to bring the beauty of art to ever-widening audiences. At the same time, he could also foresee the ways in which these same advancements might threaten the very essence of artistic tradition and experience — namely, by chipping away at the uniqueness and material presence of previously hand-crafted, aesthetic objects, and in doing so dampening what he dubbed their ‘aura’.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Benjaminian aura lately, partly because I’m in the middle of writing an essay about the experience of presence at theatre broadcasts, and partly because I spent the last two weeks of my research trip in the US looking at the ghostly side of technology. Benjamin understood aura as emanating from the unmediated, a-technological artefact — ‘that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art’ — but the more I look at digitally rich productions of Shakespeare and their historical precursors, the more I find myself thinking about the auratic or spectral potential of technology itself. Take, for instance, the production still above, which comes from a 1913 book about Hamlet based on Jonston Forbes-Robertson’s silent film of the same year. This book, held in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s collections, uses images from the film to illustrate a prose version of Shakespeare’s tragedy. What struck me most as I perused its pages were the photographs featuring the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who takes the shape of a bright, ethereal spirit produced by innovations in film technology. To see how the ghost flickers in and out of frame in the movie, have a look at the clip below.
The creative use of technology in the performance of Shakespeare is not unique to film, particularly when it comes to staging the supernatural. John Gielgud’s 1964 production of Hamlet on Broadway, starring Richard Burton, featured an audio recording of Old Hamlet’s lines recited by Gielgud himself, accompanied by a looming shadow on the wall, to body forth the ghostly presence of the late king. Long before that, John Pepper created a similarly ethereal ghost of King Hamlet in the nineteenth century by using mirror and light technologies to project the reflection of an actor onto the action of the stage (see the image below for an illustration of this technique, known as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’). In both cases, ingenious uses of technology allowed theatre-makers to present a disembodied version of King Hamlet’s ‘aura’, or, to quote from the Oxford English Dictionary, that ‘subtle emanation … viewed by mystics as consisting of the essence of the individual, serving as the medium for the operation of mesmeric and similar influences’.
Even beyond the obviously supernatural figure of the ghost, I’ve increasingly found that Hamlet stands out in the archives as one of the most frequent plays that actors and directors look to when they want to explore what technology might tell us about Shakespeare. Some of the productions I’ve been reading about lately include Robert Wilson’s staging of Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine (1986), Robert Lepage’s one-man show Elsinore (1995), the Wooster Group’s reconstruction of Gielgud and Burton’s Hamlet (2006), Katie Mitchell’s multimedia exploration of Ophelia in Five Truths (2011) and Ophelias Zimmer (2016), and finally Annie Dorsen’s ‘machine-made’, algorithm-based version of the play, A Piece of Work (2013).
While all of these productions use technology in different ways, I find it interesting that Hamlet repeatedly proves fertile ground for mechanical, multimedial, and digital experimentation. Perhaps this is due to the sheer fame and monumentality of the play, but I also wonder if there’s something particularly haunted and haunting about Hamlet that continually seems ripe for technological exploration. There is of course the play’s obsession with death and all the ‘things in heaven and earth’ that push beyond the limits of our philosophy, as well as the tragedy’s own gargantuan and even superhuman literary and theatre history, which looms so large in the study and performance of Shakespeare. Shakespeare himself has often been memorialized by lines from Hamlet — ‘He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again’ — and perhaps, in a way, all of us who are drawn to Shakespeare’s work find ourselves obsessed and even haunted by Hamlet for at least a time.
Indeed, the more I think about it, the more it seems like Hamlet is a play that started out being about death but that has become one of resurrection. It’s not just that it shows us a young man facing the spirit of his dead father — though that of course is significant. It’s also that in its virtually unparalleled cultural legacy, it connects us with a never-ending history of scholars, actors, directors, critics, and thinkers of all kinds who have come before us and pondered this seemingly insurmountable testament to human creativity. When we look on Hamlet, we also look on those who have been there before us. Their ghosts are with us alongside the Old King’s.
Maybe the next thing, then, for theatre-makers to experiment with are hyper-real technologies such as 3-D holograms that have started to appear on other stages in recent years. At Coachella in 2012 the long-deceased rapper Tupac Shakur astonished audiences when he appeared to take the stage alongside Dr Dre. Imagine Laurence Olivier coming back to give his final turn as Old Hamlet, or Richard Burton, or even Shakespeare himself, given that he too is sometimes said to have played the role. It’s possible that such innovations, with their complicated ethics, are a bridge too far. But even if this is the case, I have no doubt that directors and actors will continue to mine new technologies to bring us freshly startling takes on the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and, indeed, on the tragedy of Hamlet itself.
This month I’m in residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, home to the largest dedicated collection of Shakespeare-related materials in the world. I’m in heaven!
My focus during my time here is on the pre-history of digital Shakespeares — that is, the kinds of stage technologies that pre-date the proliferation of digital adaptations in the twenty-first century. This means that I’ve been looking at programmes from productions like Robert Lepage’s Elsinore, and also ogling over photos of Richard Burton & co. in their groundbreaking ‘Electronovision’ Hamlet in 1964, which used new film technology to live-record their Broadway production and then show it in cinemas across America. Here’s one explanatory diagram of the technical set-up:
More than anything, though, I’ve been having lots of fun exploring the collection of interactive Shakespeare games that the Folger holds in its vaults. These games have very little to do with technology per se, but their relevance for my project is in the way they invite their players to be active participants in the making of Shakespeare. For me these board games, card games, and book games herald a form of collaborative and participatory Shakespeare-making that we see today in Shakespeare-themed video games, choose-your-own-adventure books, and immersive, interactive theatre productions. In this sense the games constitute an early history of ‘prosuming‘, a concept developed by Alvin Toffler in the 1970s to refer to ‘production by consumers’. In the world of creativity and culture, the term ‘prosumer’ is often linked to instances in which audiences become creative practitioners themselves, helping produce the artistic world of a theatre production, video game, art installation, etc. by playing an active part in it.
Most of the games in the Folger collection are from the nineteenth century, some with very beautiful illustrations, although a couple come from the more recent past. I thought I’d share a few photographs here with notes about how the games work and what I think is most interesting about them…
First up are versions of familiar games like Checkers, Memory, and Go Fish, which use Shakespeare not as a crucial part of the game mechanism but rather as thematic/decorative content. So, for instance, you get a typical checker board from 1864 (Shakespeare’s 300th birthday!) that you play exactly as you would a normal one, but you also get to look at Shakespeare quotes and trivia as you do so. Ditto for the 19c. ‘Shakespeare Game of Concentration’ that you play like Memory. This seems like a Shakespeare-by-osmosis approach to me: you’re playing a familiar game that doesn’t rely on Shakespeare knowledge or appreciation in and of itself, but by using Shakespeare quotes and images as filler it tries to instill that knowledge in the process.
The Go Fish-style game is slightly more complicated for two reasons: first, because although the game mechanism works as usual for Go Fish, with players aiming to collect sets of cards that they search for in the hands of other plays, the literary trivia is more foregrounded, meaning that quotes and facts will be read aloud with frequency and inevitably play a more central role. Second, this game from c.1887 isn’t actually Shakespeare-specific, even though his face graces the box that the cards come in. Rather, it includes ‘familiar quotations’ from several ‘popular authors’ (Milton, Wordsworth, Longfellow), although it must be said that Shakespeare looms large within the deck. Each card contains several quotations in a different order and players work to collect as many complete sets as they can.
Next up are the board games, the earliest of which really only uses Shakespeare in the title: ‘Wallis’s Fashionable Game of the Seven Ages of Human Life’ (c.1814-26). It’s worth mentioning and illustrating though because it is by far the most beautiful of the bunch! Plus I love stage 29 in the timeline: ‘The Bachelor’, entertained by his faithful cat.
The other two board games are the most modern entries in the collection: ‘The Game of Shakespeare’ from 1966, and ‘The Play’s the Thing’ from 2003. Both invite players to collect Shakespeare cards studded with quotes, facts, and illustrations, and to use them to progress towards the finish line.
Related to these modern board games are the trivia-oriented card games that typically focus on Shakespearean quotes and are often explicit in their educational intent. ‘A Study of Shakespeare’ from the Shakespeare Club of Camden, Maine, in 1901 invites players to ask each other trivia questions and to collect the cards that they win. It also includes several endorsements from Shakespeare academics as to its educative value. The Cincinnati Game Company’s 1901 ‘Shakespeare’ seems to work to similar principles, with Shakespeare quotations and illustrations gracing each card in a deck divided into four suits, but, alas, the majority of its game instructions no longer survive (what is left seems to suggest that you can use the deck to play three different games, indicating perhaps that it’s essentially a regular deck of cards that you can use to play rummy, poker, etc.).
But of all these fabulous games, my very favorites are the two that are the most personalized. In ‘Shakespeare the Oracle’, 1892, and ‘Shakespeare’s Mental Photographs’, 1866, players select questions relating to their own lives and loves and then choose a number that produces a Shakespeare quote in answer. Both of these are meant to be party games, I believe, with the main thrill being the experience of revealing bits of personal information about oneself in front of a group of excitable and chirpy friends. Many of the questions have to do with the man or woman of your affection: so, for instance, you might choose the question, ‘What are his personal charms?’, and then select the number 3, from which you would get the reply, ‘His garments are rich, but he wears them not handsomely’. Ouch! While ‘Shakespeare the Oracle’ comes in the format of a series of circular question cards that participants hold, plus the oracle pamphlet from which the most esteemed member of the company reads, ‘Shakespeare’s Mental Photographs’ is potentially a more solitary affair, presenting its questions and quotes in book form.
Whatever shape they come in, though, all of these games have been lots of fun to explore and to attempt to unpuzzle. I’ve attracted lots of curious questions from fellow readers in the process–everyone loves a good game, it seems! Perhaps we can convince the Folger to let us throw a games night, with players in archival white gloves. Or, maybe more realistically, one or two of the older games could be digitized for playing online or through an app. Words with Friends Shakespeare-style, anyone?
Over the past five weeks I’ve been working with Holly Reaney, as part of the University of Birmingham’s Undergraduate Research Scholarship programme. Holly has just completed the first year of her BA in English at UoB and has been helping me explore the wide and wonderful world of Shakespeare and the internet. Each week I’ve given her a project or prompt to explore and she’s then gone away to see what the world wide web uncovers. Below is a summary of her work in her own words. Thank you Holly for all your help!
Shakespeare, social media, and everyday creativity
The undergraduate research scholarship is a scheme offered to non-final year undergraduate students in the College of Arts and Law at the University of Birmingham. The scheme aims to immerse and engage students in academia as well as enabling them to gain valuable experience in the undertaking of academic research. It was as part of this scheme that I had the opportunity to carry out research for Erin Sullivan, specifically focusing on the applications of Shakespeare in social media.
The first two weeks of my research focused on two major social media-based performances of Shakespeare’s plays: Such Tweet Sorrow (2010) and A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming (2013). Co-produced by the RSC, these adaptations attempted to push the limits of theatrical performance, aiming to make Shakespeare more accessible to the wider public. One of the unique aspects of the social media performances were their ability to occur in real time. Such Tweet Sorrow occurred continuously over five weeks. However, due to the length of the project and the vast amount of content which was produced as a consequence, it was sometimes difficult to follow. This challenge was combatted in A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming as it only ran for seventy-two hours. Over the course of A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, 3,000 pieces of original content were released by over 30 original characters. This created a diversity of narrative and effectively established a very complete world of auxiliary characters. The vast amount of content showcases the wide range of creative abilities as well as the ingenuity which Shakespeare has inspired. In both of these performances the RSC achieve the aim of making Shakespeare accessible. Both performances serve to bring the play quite literally into the hands of their audiences, enabling them to interact and alter the performances in a way which is impossible on stage.
The second aspect of my research focused on audience-created responses. These responses occupy a wide a range of forms, such as memes and gifs on Tumblr, tweets from ‘Shakespeare’ or community based Twitter pages, and whole narratives in the form of fan fiction. All of these online communities attract similar audiences: young adults and teenagers with a vague interest in Shakespeare and who are active online participants. Tumblr is a primarily visual site, with the most circulated images being pictures of Benedict Cumberbatch in his performance of Hamlet or Richard III, Tom Hiddleston as Henry V and David Tennant as Hamlet or Richard II. These photos (excluding Tom Hiddleston as Henry V) were accessed through the National Theatre live performances, a system which enables select performances to be broadcast by a massive audience. The sharing of the photographs and gifs further increases the audiences for these performances (even if they have not seen the live piece) as the images serve to illustrate the original text in the context of these specific adaptations. However, only those who know the original text can appreciate the images in this way.
Another element I researched with regards to audience-created responses to Shakespeare was fan fiction. Fan fiction is an interesting and creative way for audiences to respond to the narratives which interest them. It provides a way for audiences to develop a community based around similar interests whilst also offering an extremely versatile creative outlet. The inclusion of ‘comments’ and ‘kudos’ or ‘reviews’ and ‘favourites’, depending on which site, enables interaction between fan fiction author and reader, the opportunity to share criticism and to develop a community of like-minded individuals. Writing in a modern day setting, with the accompanying modern language, proved to be extremely popular on the creative front. There is a trend that these ‘modernisations’ tend to be based upon the plays which revolve around younger characters, such as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night. This could be because their situations are the most romantic or that they hold a level of relatability for the authors (teenagers suffering with love, anger, depression etc.). Prequels and sequels also heavily feature in the works, and these are possibly the works that are the most connected to Shakespeare, with some painstakingly obeying Shakespeare’s original writing style, featuring iambic pentameter, rhyme schemes and verse.
Another form of audience-created responses are visual adaptations of Shakespeare. Web series hold a much broader appeal as they follow a linear narrative which aids understanding for those unfamiliar with the original play. By reimagining the original scripts in the vernacular the plots are made easier to follow and the occasional yet seamless integration of Shakespeare’s original lines ensures that the connection to the original text is maintained and honoured, whilst also not being inaccessible. Due to the open platform which is YouTube, levels of professionalism varied from the heavily produced and funded Titus and Dronicus to the completely amateur A Document in Madness. As with all modern adaptations, and internet adaptions, the plots are altered. In the case of Monty and Jules, the adoption of a university setting means that the feud is between two rival fraternities as opposed to the families. In this case the adaptation of the plot to the 21st century setting is exceptionally well done. The avoidance of murder and suicide was especially well executed as they still communicated the consequences of what in the play are the murder and suicides but managed to avoid the involvement of the police or similar legal authorities, something which often impedes believability of modernisation of Shakespeare’s plays. The modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays, especially that on the internet platform, is definitely well suited to the video form – especially the mix of vlog style and video calling used Monty and Jules – as it communicates an intimacy and believability which is often lost when productions are attempted on other online platforms.
Overall, Shakespeare and the digital world appears to be based around accessibility and community. Audiences are engaged and interacted with in ways that are impossible on a traditional stage. The online world gives everyone’s voice a chance to be heard and way for their own creativity to be displayed.
Guest post by Holly Reaney, BA English (University of Birmingham).
I’ve been thinking about attention this week. Not the kind that other people give to you, but the kind you create yourself. Focus. Concentration. Absorption. Immersion.
I’ve been thinking about it because sustained, unbroken attention is something that doesn’t always come naturally to me, especially when I find myself sitting in the darkness of a theatre after a long day’s work.
This is ironic – and embarrassing – for a Shakespeare scholar to admit. In years past, when I counted myself more a cultural historian and literary critic, I could just about get away with it; theatre was great, but it wasn’t my bread and butter, so it was almost okay if I secretly spaced out or even nodded off for a bit every now and then.
But now that I’m putting theatre at the heart of my next research project, I’m feeling a little more self-aware. And intrigued. To a certain extent I’ve started training myself to be more alert, to see going to theatre more as work (in a good way — usually). At the same time, a significant proportion of the theatre I’m watching is by online streaming, meaning that several of my ‘nights at the theatre’ are actually me, sitting on my bed with headphones, looking at a screen.
This, I’m finding, proves a particularly formidable challenge for someone prone to breaking focus. With no audience around me to enforce a sense of shared theatre etiquette, a number of new and previously impossible styles of theatre-watching start to emerge. Turning to Twitter occasionally to see what other audience members are saying. Multi-tasking to save time and energy on tired evenings – eating dinner while I watch, maybe even making it. Petting the cat when he climbs on my lap, curious what I’m up to. Saying a quick hello to my husband when he comes in from work. And, if the streaming is on-demand rather than live, pausing every now and then to take a break, or maybe even watching the production over a couple of days in chunks.
Although I’m a little embarrassed to fess up to these practices, I know I’m not alone. I’m not the only one on Twitter after all. Which is why it was all the more surprising, and challenging, and interesting, when online audiences were invited last week by Complicite’s Simon McBurney to turn off our phones.
The show we had tuned in to see was a live performance of The Encounter, streamed online courtesy of Complicite and The Space from the sold-out Barbican Theatre in London (and available on YouTube until the end of today here). This one-man show tells the story of a National Geographic photographer’s journey into the Brazilian rain forest, and his consciousness-bending experiences while there. It is told through the use of immersive, ‘binaural’ sound technology, with all members of the audience – in-person and online – wearing headphones throughout the entire performance.
McBurney started casually, shuffling along the stage and then addressing the audience in his khaki shirt, baseball cap, and jeans. ‘Ladies and gents, um, we’re just still waiting for some people to come in, apparently the bars are more attractive than the theatre. If you could please, while we’re waiting, turn these off [holds up mobile phone]. Tonight is a livestream, so I suggest anybody at home, who’s watching this also turns these off.’ And I did. No live tweeting during the production, no stopping and starting (not really possible in this case), and once things got going I even turned out all the lights. I did still eat dinner while watching it, but I was lucky enough not to have to cook it.
I don’t know if this single focus made the experience better or worse or the same. Though I won’t go into the details here of the production itself, I should say that it was genuinely extraordinary, and I certainly didn’t feel limited or kept at a distance during my encounter with The Encounter. At the same time, I still experienced plenty of moments of mental interruption, not least as I got to thinking about my own sense of sustained attention and what helps and hinders it. But I did really benefit from the challenge of trying to pay attention to a streamed performance at home in a way that was similar to how I might do so in a theatre. I did my best to perform a social code, even when no one was checking up on me (aside from my fellow audience members on Twitter).
So all this was in my head when I made my way down to London for another theatre event at the Barbican last weekend: Forced Entertainment’s Table Top Shakespeare. This series of 36, one-hour productions saw six actors taking turns as they told the story of each of Shakespeare’s plays using a box of household objects. Beatrice as a bottle of sunscreen, Claudius as a container of flea powder, Hector as a jar of Tabasco sauce, Cleopatra as an old china dish. Look below to see Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane.
I went down to London to see four of these experiments in storytelling live and in-person, after watching about the same number online last summer when they were broadcast live from the Berliner Festspielen. I remember seeing snippets of a few one day during the work week, then hearing more from a friend a few days later, and finally settling down outside on a sunny, late Saturday afternoon to watch A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While I watched, I took notes – not on paper, as I normally would in the theatre, but published online through Twitter, where I also looked out for the comments of others. A couple of examples:
‘…and Oberon kind of agrees…’ – lovely bits of editorialising in @ForcedEnts#completeworks , strangely evocative of Lambs’ Tales
Close to a year later, I’m left wondering what kind of theatrical experience that was. I know for a fact that I was doing lots of other things while watching, though I do think that I was also paying attention, and really focusing, while navigating my way around those other things. And speaking with others online during the performance did, in some ways, make certain moments and insights more memorable for me.
Being physically present, down in the depths of the Barbican Pit on Saturday was a materially more immersive experience, and I did feel like the co-presence of the somewhat surprisingly packed audience around me did focus my mind and senses in ways that I missed last summer. But I’m not going to lie – in hour 3 I moved to a cooler seat at the edge, and I let my mind wander and even drift off for a few drowsy minutes. This had everything to do with stamina rather than interest. And I don’t know what this all adds up to, other than a growing preoccupation with how I watch theatre – whether in an auditorium, a cinema, or at home, sitting on my bed.
How do these different practices affect my appreciation of what’s before me, and my absorption in it? Do we need to develop a shared protocol for at-home viewings if we want streamed theatre to achieve a certain kind of emotional and sensory effect? Should we turn our phones off, or are they doing something new and helpful for us that we should embrace rather than shun? There are over 1,000 comments on the YouTube page for The Encounter, and despite McBurney’s plea I’m sure that a good portion of them bear a time-stamp from the night of the livestream. Is this a sign of our ever distracted, ever fragmented times, or a mark of a new and maybe even enhanced way of watching theatre, or perhaps some combination of both?
Banksy’s newest piece of street art has caught my attention twice this week – first for the work of art itself, and the powerful way that it incorporates digital media, and second for the clearing away of the work, and the way it’s being saved for the public digitally.
So let’s start with the work of art itself. It turned up last Saturday across the street from the French Embassy in Knightsbridge. At its centre is the iconic illustration of Cosette from Les Miserables, but with yellowy tears running from her eyes, and gas from a nearby canister clouding her body. Most have read it as a critique of the French government’s use of tear gas in refugee encampments in Calais.
This isn’t the first time Banksy has used his work to speak out against the treatment of immigrants and the dangers of xenophobia – for other examples see here and here. It is the first time, though, that he’s included a piece of digital technology that invites viewers to take his image a step further, and to have a look for themselves at the media footage he’s responding to.
That’s right, a QR code. One of those black and white little squares that you really only see in marketing materials these days. In his book The Emergence of the Digital Humanities, Steven E. Jones takes a swipe at these pieces of low-fi, quasi-digital kit, largely for their ineffectiveness (who actually takes the time to scan them?) but also for their feeble and rather outdated gesture towards some other dimension known as ‘The Digital’. I pretty much agree – I downloaded a QR reader to my phone a few years ago when we got an app-based walking tour in Stratford, but it never really worked that well, and eventually I deleted it in order to make space for something else. But Banksy’s use of the QR code really caught my eye, and got me thinking about how it really can work, provided that the thing it connects you with is something genuinely interesting, useful, unexpected, and important.
As the video above shows, Banksy’s QR code links the viewer to media footage of the very event he is critiquing, and in doing so it layers art with reality, painting with video, street art with newsfeed. It is multimedial and multiexperiential, inviting us not only to revel in his satirical comment, but also to witness a few, harrowing minutes in the lives of people just 100 miles away from London. In a strange way, Banksy’s painting makes this live footage become ‘real’, rather than the other way around. By inserting it into the well-heeled streets of Knightsbridge, by giving it context outside of the numbing repetitiveness of the nightly news, by making it a part of a conversation, it focuses viewers’ attention and creates new impact.
It’s interesting too that the best video documentation of the painting that I’ve found – the piece embedded above – was created specifically for Facebook by the social media outlet AJ+, and doesn’t exist separately as an independent URL. It’s meant to be shared, and unlike the versions that I found on more traditional news sites, it actually mixes in the video footage opened up by the QR code. Plus, it forgoes the heavy, didactic narration of the news presenter and chooses instead to frame the piece through music and single lines of written text. The effect, for me, is far more engaging, exploratory, immersive, and powerful.
Now, the coda – like so many Banksy pieces these days, this one has already come down (or at least part of it – while the bulk of the image was painted on a piece of easily removed plywood, the tear gas can is on the base of a stone wall). Given the price that Banksy’s works now go for, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it makes its way into a private collection. But before the removal occurred, a man from Google came with the company’s Streetview kit to digitally record and document it. In a few months, and certainly a few years, this may very well be the only high-quality, officially archived ‘copy’ of the work available to the public. So what started off as a mixed media piece on the streets of London might ultimately end up as an entirely digital one in the clouds of the internet, increasingly managed by the empire of Google.
A new academic year’s around the corner, which in addition to chilly weather and a pleasing number of beer and cider festivals means more trips for me up to the Shakespeare Institute’s home base, the University of Birmingham. Most of the daytime is spent in meetings, making plans for the semester to come, but around the edges of those days comes time to explore the city, to eat amazing food, to talk to people, and to head off to the theatre when night falls. In the past week I’ve been able to see three very different and very brilliant new plays, each fronted by the wonderful Birmingham Rep. They’re not all digital, and they’re certainly not all Shakespeare, but each seems relevant, in one way or another, to some of the ideas I’ve been thinking about on this blog.
Charles III by Mike Bartlett, on national tour. An imagined history play that opens with Prince Charles taking the throne after the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth… it’s not so much a Shakespeare adaptation as it is inspired by Shakespeare’s craft and style. Written mostly in verse, and with three interweaving plotlines, Bartlett’s play echoes questions about power and kingship that surface across Shakespeare’s history cycles while still feeling very much like a new and separate creation. The verse itself is, perhaps inevitably, strikingly different from Shakespeare’s own — lyrical passages or poetic phrasings are rare, with Bartlett instead favouring a more functional, prosaic, and often very funny brand of iambic pentameter. The Shakespearean inflections build as the play progresses, most notably in the characterization of the three male royals: Charles emerges as a Richard II-eque anointed king, William as a seemingly inscrutable and ultimately rather crafty Bolingbroke, and Harry as, well, Prince Harry/Hal. The result is smart, provocative, and surprisingly profound. Like Shakespeare’s plays, Charles III is packed with philosophical and political debate, but it’s never straightforwardly ideological. It voices royalist and republican views, but it resists taking sides in its examination of what monarchy represents in the twenty-first century. How do we reconcile the glitz, the celebrity, and vapidity with the history, the ceremony, and tremendous energy that goes into keeping the idea of monarchical power, in such reduced shape and form, alive? Is this a ‘golden age of monarchy’, as Charles ironically calls it, which ‘bothers no one, does no good, and is / A pretty plastic picture with no meaning’? If so, what’s the point?
Black Tonic, The Other Way Works, touring next to Bristol and Bradford. ‘Interactive theatre meets mini-break’, according to the production publicity, and that’s as good a one-line description as any I can think of. Staged in a real hotel (the Radisson Blu in Birmingham’s case), the show guides an audience of just four people through a detective story crossed with a meditation on the experience of space, time, and identity in a 24-hour, networked world. We begin in the lobby before taking the elevator up to ‘our room’, where scenes start occurring in the corridor, in our bedroom, in the room next door, in a conference room nearby, and eventually on the street outside of our window. The production makes the most of the strange no-space that corporate hotels can be: ‘we want you to think that you’re the only one who has slept in this bed’, a film on one of the room televisions tells us, that we’re in an intimate, safe, private space that exists only for us. And yet we know that this is in fact a strangely public space, that hundreds if not thousands of people have been here before us, that the labyrinthine corridors connecting our rooms lead us through alien, artificially lit spaces maintained at night by people we rarely see… in other words, The Shining was set in a hotel for a reason. I won’t give away too much about the plot, which centres around two different couples that a sinister relationship manager is trying to break up, but I will say that I found the production’s mix of narrative storytelling and ambient immersion brilliantly judged, and the acting and technical coordination truly impressive. Hiding in a bathroom with a fellow audience member and an actor, watching another scene unfold in the reflection of the mirror in front of us, was a voyeuristic and visceral highlight, as was setting my mind adrift in the soundscapes and visual beauty of the production’s two inset films. On a more techy/digital note, I left thinking about how digital modes of performance might integrate with very human, embodied, and experiential kinds of theatre, and furthermore how they can be as much about intimacy and isolation as about collectivity and the global.
A Translation of Shadows, Stan’s Cafe, touring around the UK. In a week of unusually difficult to describe shows, this one is perhaps the most summary-defying. But let’s try anyway… inspired by the early twentieth-century tradition of the Japanese benshi — that is, live performers who provided in-person narration for silent films (including dialogue and scenic description) — Stan’s Cafe’s new show explores the relationship between art and interpretation, showing and telling, mimesis and diegesis. In the process it also considers the relationship between art and reality, but let’s set that to the side for now… The show opens with an imaginary, modern-day benshi taking the stage, welcoming his audience, and introducing the film — Shadows — that we are about to see. The lights dim, the film begins, and so does the narration, which is energetic and amusing if fairly mundane (‘here’s a train’). The benshi‘s running commentary is rather like having the director’s track turned on while watching a DVD, with bits of trivia and anecdotes peppering the narration. He directs us in the art of reading a film (‘everything is included for a reason’), and he draws our attention to changes in camera perspective as well as the back stories of the actors. His approach is the antithesis of Susan Sontag’s ‘Against Interpretation’, which argues that critical ‘interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone’. And yet, as the play continues, he also becomes the illustration of her essay, with his increasingly controlling commentary revealing ‘a dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it with something else’. That something else is the story and the actors as he chooses to imagine and experience them, and so Prospero-like he begins interacting with and manipulating the ‘shadows’ that we’re watching on the screen. In a tweet after the show, I described it as Lost in Translation meets Synecdoche, New York meets Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I still think that’s as good a summary as I can manage; sometimes it’s easier and more accurate to say what something’s like than what it actually is. There’s one more show tonight in Birmingham, before the production sets off for Blackpool.
So that’s it for a brilliant week in the theatre, which clearly left me with abundant food for thought. One final note is that at the start of the week I had the chance to visit Birmingham’s new Impact Hub in Digbeth, which is a creative co-working space dedicated to building ‘a better Birmingham, one that is fairer, more democratic and more inclusive’. They have some beautiful working spaces, and some really inspiring plans, and I hope to find myself back there, as well as the Birmingham REP, in the weeks and months to come.
It’s been a long time since my last post, and I’m afraid it’s going to be quite awhile until the next one too, due to the need to once-and-for-all finish my first solo-authored book (started in my PhD days…!). But I wanted to write a short something to mark the new year, and also to reflect on a couple of digital things that actually relate to the book I’m finishing. That project is on the history of emotion and specifically sadness in Shakespeare’s time, and in many ways it’s a world apart from the ideas about Shakespeare and digital culture that I’ve been discussing on this blog over the last year. It has involved lots of archival work, dusty rare books, histories of medicine, and histories of religion — seemingly very different territory from this blog — but it’s also led me to read and think lots about why and how we feel things, and how different cultural, artistic, and indeed technological influence may shape how that process of feeling works.
Which is where the digital comes in. I haven’t written much at all about emotion and digital culture so far, but it’s something that’s been on my mind for a long time, from watching films like Her to seeing photographs of Banksy’s depiction of modern love to listening to St. Vincent’s most recent album on repeat. To pursue that last one in a bit more depth — like many people, one of my new year’s resolutions has been to get outside and get moving more, and over the past few weeks I’ve gotten back to a bit of running, and a bit of simultaneous music-listening in the process. I had already heard a few songs off St. Vincent on the radio and tv, but listening to an album with headphones on, while you’re doing something you don’t especially enjoy, has a special power to focus the mind.
What I hadn’t realized until recently is how much of the album is about life in a twenty-first-century digital world, and the kinds of emotions it leaves us with — or, as it happens, without. ‘Call the twenty-first century, tell her give us a break’, St. Vincent sings in the penultimate track, ‘Every Tear Disappears’. That song also begins with the title of this post: ‘Oh a smile is more than showing teeth’. It’s a lyric that caught my attention first and foremost because it inadvertently poses a challenge to one of the most influential, and yet contested, methods of studying emotion across different cultures — the recognition of facial expressions. Spearheaded by a man named Paul Ekman in the late 1960s, this method asks people from different parts of the world to identify emotion based on a set of photographs, and the resulting evidence has been used to make a case for what Ekman calls ‘basic’, or universal, emotions across cultures:
But without going too deep into the tangly history of the study of emotion, the other thing that this lyric from St. Vincent made me think about was how our experience of technology impacts on our sense of emotional identity and capability. The first single off the album, and as far as I’m aware the most successful track to date, is a song called ‘Digital Witness’. Featuring the repeated, tumbling refrain, ‘People turn the tv on it looks just like a window’, the playfully techno-critical song evokes for me elements of the Buggles’ 1979 hit, ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’. ‘Pictures came and broke your heart, we can’t rewind we’ve gone too far’, that tune tells us over and over again, as it semi-ironically mourns the loss of one form of entertainment technology as a new one swiftly takes over. And even if you don’t remember the words to the song, you may very well recall that the music video for it was used to launch MTV to the world in 1981.
Nearly thirty-five years later, the video for ‘Digital Witness’ tells its own story of digital — and implicitly psychological — change. St. Vincent herself, with her candy floss hair, is the central focus, always drawing our attention despite the fact that she never looks directly at us. Instead, she looks just off and above camera, like someone watching a tv screen at a bar while they half carry on with conversation. The eerie, de Chirico-esque landscape she travels through is colorfully vivid, but weirdly devoid of human agency or vivacity. There’s a gently, if beautifully, lobotomized feel to the aesthetic, and presumably one that’s not incidental to the title and lyrics of the song. And while I should say that I don’t fully agree with the idea that technology turns us into drones, it’s still an argument that’s worth making.
As a historian of emotion there’s no doubt in my mind that technology is changing us, in potentially fundamental ways, but I don’t necessarily see that as intrinsically bad — just something that we need to keep a firm eye on, and not one that’s partly askance while we do something else. If anyone wants to read more about the study of the history of emotion — without which ‘there will be no real history possible’, the great Lucien Febvre suggested — then have a look at a review essay of the field I wrote a couple of years ago. Please wish me luck as I move into the final stage of revisions, and look for more posts here later in the year!
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