Just over a week ago at the BFI London, Ian McKellen launched his latest venture: an iPad app. It’s the first in a series of apps called Heuristic Shakespeare, and this one is The Tempest, with McKellen as Prospero, which has just become available in the App Store.
“The great thing about Shakespeare is he has a quote for every occasion. ‘Goodnight sweet Prince’,” he said, quoting a line from Hamlet, the morning after the Purple Rain singer had died. “I still think the best way to approach Shakespeare is with no preparation. Throw someone in at the deep end: Shakespeare will change their life.”
But what about those of us who feel intimidated or uncertain and shy away from going to a performance as a result. That’s where the app comes in. Richard Loncraine, who directed the film version of Richard III, with McKellen in the title role, explained the principle. “We found from research that comprehension went up when eye contact was made, so we decided to have our actors look straight into the camera, right at the app user.”
The result is a strikingly accessible way to see the play, enhanced by the fact that top-flight actors are involved: Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Francis Barber, David Foxxe and Richard Clifford, who also directed the play. As you watch the actors speaking to you, the text scrolls by in perfect synchronisation. You can pause any time you like, going back to listen again or to check the notes for further clarification.
The notes, by the way, are the best you’ll find anywhere, coming from the Arden Shakespeare edition of the play. Arden has always been the outstanding publisher for everyone from actors to academics and this is the cheapest way of buying the text, the app costs £4.49, half that of the print edition which costs £8.99.
App users can choose how much of the notes they want to see, basic, full Arden and something that might be called Arden Plus. This includes essays and commentaries on top of everything else. There’s a handy guide to ease you into the swing of things, showing how to navigate the play, how to explore the characters and more.
Note that the scenes are downloaded separately from the app - don’t start trying to watch the performance if you’re in a place with no phone or WiFi connection. Some of the commentaries need to be downloaded, too. The entire play takes up 1.6GB of space, but you can opt to store individual scenes, which will suit those with smaller storage capacity on their iPad.
McKellen says the aim of the app is not to provide a definitive performance - though there has hardly been a time when a performance by this actor hasn’t been acclaimed as definitive - but to whet the user’s appetite so they will then see a full production in the theatre.
Loncraine also told me about how a performance can be intimidating. “When you’re faced by lavish sets, lighting and more, it can be difficult to concentrate on the text.” I’d agree. Sometimes even a big-name actor’s performance can be striking enough (for which read self-indulgent enough) to make the text incoherent. A little prep with this hugely enjoyable app can bring you up to speed easily.
This is raw Shakespeare, filmed without a director’s over-weaning perception of the play. As such, it’s a brilliantly direct line into the text. The performances are relaxed, simple and highly accessible. It’s done at a gentler pace than a theatrical performance would permit, but never over-explained or patronising its audience.
The play, by the way, is one of Shakespeare’s last, often seen as his farewell to the stage. So why is it the first to be filmed by Heuristic, the company which says it’s going to make an app for each of the Bard’s 37 plays? That’s where the involvement of the country’s leading Shakespeare scholar, Professor Sir Jonathan Bate, comes in. He points out that it’s the play that appears first in the First Folio, the definitive text of all Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623. The full First Folio edition is included in facsimile here, too. Bate was also on hand to ensure a scholarly approach to textual difficulties, Loncraine tells me.
There are useful extra features, such as a chart which shows where characters are at any point, which provides a helpful and unique view of the play. There are also extensive galleries of photos of theatre productions, which are fascinating.
This is a Shakespeare app like no other, providing assistance to those unsure of the text, which will be especially useful for students. But it’s also informative to those wanting to see the play from a different angle. And the presence of some of the best actors around makes it highly entertaining as well.
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