Review : Read and Watch Macbeth

By very strange coincidence I received two independent requests for review recently for almost the exact same thing – interactive Shakespeare for my iPad. Here’s the thing, though – one is an interactive book, and one is an app. Other than this technicality they are nearly identical both in function as well as what they hope to accomplish. As such I cannot help but review them against each other.

Read the plays or see them performed?

It’s a question we’ve beaten into the ground over the years and my position has always been that it’s the “or” that causes trouble. You absolutely positively without doubt should do one and the other. The constraints of daily life are what decide which you have the better opportunity to accomplish.

I’ve always been a big proponent of using technology to fix this gap, and Apple’s new “interactive books” make some important steps in the right direction. Unfortunately I think there’s still a long way to go before they can compete with dedicated apps.

New Book Press graciously sent me a copy of their WordPlay Macbeth for review. Keep in mind that this is a book, not an app, and you’ll find it in the Books section of the iTunes Store.

What goes into an interactive book? Well, start with the original text, that’s obvious. There’s a summary page for each scene which includes clickable images of all the characters in that scene. Click one and you get a summary of that character’s role as well.

But this is only half the page! The opposite page is filled up with a movie so you can follow along the text while the actors perform for you. This is actually pretty cool. Now you truly can read and watch and the same time!

There’s more. You watch the actors perform it. You can see the text as they do it. What if you still have no idea what they just said? Here’s something you can’t do away from your computer — hit that “Tap to translate” button and up pops an English translation of what you just saw/read.

Like any book you can also bookmark your place, and search the text. You can also take notes as you go, highlighting passages and adding your own thoughts. The website mentions “social sharing” functions, but all I found was the ability to email your own notes.

This is a great deal of functionality for a book, and it should be viewed as such. I don’t want to take away from that. I do, however, feel that there are a number of things that they may want to change, if the format allows it:

  1. The “Tap to Translate” button brings up the modern copy as a balloon style dialogue box, half atop the text and half over the video (which might still be playing).  That means there’s no real “side by side” comparison to what you’re reading. You can’t move it.  The video also doesn’t switch over, which I understand (that would double the already huge filesize), but it would be cool if you clicked that button and then got to watch the actors perform it in modern language.
  2. Every page is some text, and a video.  That means that you get very little text per page, and very little acting (since each video only represents what’s on the page).  So working your way through the book would be an exercise in “Play video, watch 30 seconds, flip…play video,  watch 30 seconds, flip…” for 4 hours worth of content.
  3. I’m not sure what they were going for with the acting, whether it’s supposed to be legit or campy or educational or what.  The background of the videos is pure white, along with the book itself, so when you play a video it’s as if characters are running out of the page right at you (which is actually kind of cool).  Monologues are frequently spoken directly to the reader, breaking the fourth wall, which was a little jarring to me.
  4. They doubled up on some actors, which is no big deal in a real stage production but if this is intended to be an educational resource, you have to assume that there’s a younger audience who is actually trying to pay attention and learn something … and when the guy that was just playing the third witch a minute ago suddenly runs up to report to Duncan about Macbeth’s exploits on the battlefield, many readers will be left confused.
  5. Each “chapter” (Act and/or Scene) comes with a summary page that contains clickable portraits of all the actors, and one or more still images of the videos to come, along with a high level summary of the chapter. I found this more confusing than anything else.  I wanted to click the still images and fast forward to those sections (you cannot).  The “bio” for each actor is the same no matter where they appear in the play, so once you’ve read one they just get in the way.  It might have been better to use that space to actually talk about what each character is going to do in the scene?
  6. I’m very confused by the name to look for. The web site calls these books WordPlay Shakespeare, but when you look on iTunes the book is called “Read and Watch Macbeth : Complete Text & Performance.” I don’t know if that’s because I got some sort of early review copy or what, and I apologize to the publisher if I’m calling it by the wrong name. But I also want people to be able to find it in the store!

 Overall, I’ll say again, I like the idea of the “interactive book” format and think it has potential. I witnessed one advantage just this week when my internet went out. As I mentioned above I have another interactive Shakespeare app that is very similar to this one — but without internet I could not watch any of the videos :(.  With this version I have everything I need downloaded, so I could take it with me places that may not have a live net connection.  That’s a bonus that we often forget.

Macbeth requires iBooks 3 on an iPad device with iOS 5.1 or higher.

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