Learning to read what the iPad store has writ: Shakespeare goes mobile

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As our country’s greatest ever playwright, it’s inevitable that Shakespeare looms large on the list of theatrically-inclined apps for the mobile market.

Being out of copyright doesn’t exactly hurt. Indeed, if you search Apple’s iOS App Store for ‘Shakespeare’, you can find any number of applications that have taken texts of the Bard’s works, and created free or cheap ebook versions of either single plays or assorted collections. There are, however, some apps which attempt to go that little bit further.

In a print feature for The Stage a couple of years ago, I featured Shakespeare (free) and Shakespeare Pro (£6.99), and if you’re after complete works for easily accessible reference on the go, either is still essential. You do lose some of the more rigorous editing of a carefully curated complete works, such as Jonathan Bate’s for the RSC, of course. If you’re unfamiliar with some of the vocabulary and allusion within the text, the footnotes and commentary that you find within printed texts and companion guides can be sorely missed with a freebie, although the Pro edition’s integrated glossary is alone worth the payment price.

At the other end of the scale, Touch Press has, in association with Faber & Faber, Arden Shakespeare & Illuminations Media, the sublime The Sonnets app for iPad (£9.99). Each of the 154 poems are presented in text form, along with a beautiful high quality video of a thespian luminary giving life to the reading. Fiona Shaw, Patrick Stewart, Cicely Berry, and many more help elucidate the source material, breathing life to it through performance, which is just as Shakespeare should be experienced. Each sonnet is accompanied by Arden’s detailed footnotes, as well as illuminating (and often hilariously caustic) commentary by Don Paterson. Video interviews (and transcripts) with academics provide valuable insight into pronunciation and other contextual information that simply reading a book can’t get across. At a penny under a tenner it’s considerably more expensive than most apps – and will take up a substantial portion of your iPad’s storage space – but the quality throughout makes it feel like you’re getting incredible value for money.

For those wanting to get to grips with individual plays, Shakespeare in Bits takes the unusual approach of combining the text of each play with a full-cast audio presentation, and simple character animation. The basic app is free, but downloads of each play in the catalogue are purchased through a storefront build into the app. The audio portions come from the Naxos back catalogue and are pleasant enough. Personally I found the video animations to not be all that useful, despite adding substantially to the download size of each play. You could possibly get better value for money by buying an audiobook of each production and listening while reading along with a copy of the script. Desktop and education editions are also available from the MindConnex website.

When it comes to introducing Shakespeare to young audiences, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (£1.49) also uses animation – although to a much higher quality. Many of the animations are interactive, but what I found particularly frustrating in the treatment of this, my favourite Shakespeare work, is that Shakespeare’s language and poetry are discarded in favour of rhyming couplets that put me in mind of (and I’m showing my age here) the captions in the Rupert the Bear annuals. At the price, though, it is good value for a very young audience.

Personally, when it comes to young people I do think finding the right live performance is key to showing them how exciting, how current and how inspiring Shakespeare can be. Theatre company Shakespeare4Kidz is currently touring their version of The Tempest, which includes songs by Julian Chenery and Matt Gimblett. For this tour, the show’s programme is now available as a free mobile app. Unlike the other apps mentioned above, The Tempest is a free web application, although native apps for iOS and Android are promised.

Installation becomes a little different: in Mobile Safari on iPhone or iPad, go to shakespeare4kidz.com/app/. Once the front page has appeared, click on the share/action button (in the middle of the toolbar on iPhone, to the immediate left of the address bar on iPad) and then tap on ‘Add to Home Screen’.

As a web app, the programme requires a working data connection, and each page’s download has the sort of lag that a native app would find unacceptable. As a complement to a performance, it’s a great idea, and is structured in ways that mirror smartphones’ native apps and the navigation style therein.

I do worry, though, that if more programmes start to become available on phones, it becomes ever harder to persuade people to turn the darned things off in the auditorium…