Review : Shakespeare At Play’s “Romeo and Juliet”

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. Here we look at the app.

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.

Every time I have a new project I think to myself, book or app? The traditional book format reaches a wider audience with simpler requirements, but you sacrifice  your ability to really dig in and create a truly interactive experience.  An app is a more complex beast, taking longer to produce for what is ultimately a smaller audience, but you get to make it do exactly what you envisioned.
Today we have the Shakespeare At Play app for review.  Much like other offerings in this space, this product walks you through Shakespeare’s work by providing half a page of text and half a page of video.  Each scene gets an audio description, a textual description, and a textual description of the characters.
Before getting into the quality of the content, I want to mention a few other features. Under the global Menu option is a Shakespeare FAQ, whose purpose I did not truly understand. It’s just a text file, not even searchable. There is an integrated glossary, which is a nice touch.  As you read you’ll see some words in boldface.  Hold your finger on one, and you’ll get the definiton.
There is also a Download Manager. In my previous post I mentioned that without internet connectivity I was unable to stream the videos, thus giving a point to the more traditional book format. However, you can opt to download all the videos and take them with you. The thing is you need to plan to do that ahead of time, it’s still not going to work if your internet goes out :).
This is also a player app for multiple titles, and as such it has its own Library (unlike iBooks, where going to Library takes you out of each individual title).  As of this moment I think that their Library functionality needs work, it took me ages to figure out that I’m supposed to click on the unadorned price box under each title in order to complete the in-app purchase and actually get my book.
Lastly, what I think is perhaps the most useful feature of the entire app.  Running alongside the text is not what I’d call modern translation, but more like “director’s notes” telling you what’s going on, and why.  An example:

Presumably Gregory sees Tybalt approaches, which is confusing as it is Benvolio who arrives first. This could mean that Tybalt is seen by Samson and Gregory, but is positioned so as to surprise Benvolio.

This commentary runs throughout the play, and I thought it was an excellent addition.
Ok, with features out of the way let’s talk about the content.  In this particular case I’ve chosen Romeo and Juliet, since I did Macbeth in a previous review.  The company’s Hamlet is listed as “Coming Soon”.
Similar to the previous title I reviewed, each scene is a bare stage (that in this case blends almost completely into the page), tightly focused on the speaking characters. This puts an unfortunate focus on the quality of the acting, which is far from award winning.  It’s more like people just got in front of the character with the intent of demonstrating how the lines should go.  But that’s fine, it’s not like Sir Ian and Sir Patrick are just hanging out waiting for their phone call.  The value of these apps is in their interactivity, not their stagecraft.  I don’t mean to fault the enthusiasm of the actors who made this, I just don’t think that this nothing-but-character-closeups method of filming is the best way to present Shakespeare. 
Each video represents an entire scene, which you follow along by vertically scrolling the text in a separate frame. I would love it if these could be synced up in some way.  If you let the video run for a few minutes and then actually have a question, it’s going to take you awhile to find that spot in the text. Similarly if you’re reading ahead and want to jump the video to a certain place, you’ll have equal trouble.  
I’m at a complete loss as to what I’m supposed to do when I get to the end of a scene.  There’s no obvious way to move to the next one.  The unobvious way is to tap the current Act and Scene button at the top of the page, which brings down a menu and allows you to pick another scene.  I find this so unintuitive that I assume I’m just missing something.  Sure, it allows you to easily jump around the play.  But aren’t most reader/watchers going to most often want to simply say “next scene”?
What else….  the audio commentary I suppose is a nice idea, but the interface needs work. Unlike the video player which has the traditional pause buttons and progress bars, the audio offers none of that, just a play button. Every time you stop and start, it starts over.  Which I’d be fine with except for the fact that there’s no way to tell how long he’s going to talk!  Is this a 45 second commentary or a 12 minute one?  That makes a big difference.
I’d like to see many more features to bring an app like this on par with a book.  Highlighting passages and taking notes would be a big one.  That seems like an easy add.  As I mentioned I’d like the video and text to stay in sync, even going so far as to seamlessly jump between scenes so you could if you wanted just watch the whole book end to end.
Right now I think that the “director’s commentary” I spoke of is the best part of this app.  Perhaps they could marry this together with the video syncing and the audio commentary to produce something more like a modern DVD?  Where the user could opt to turn on the commentary track and then following through the play in text and video, while listening to the director’s notes?  That would be seriously cool.

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