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Ian McKellen's Shakespeare series app is will blow your mind

Ahead of the world-famous actor’s visit to Mumbai, mid-day takes his new Shakespeare series app for a spin, and finds it unputdownable

When we log in to the app store on an iPad to search for Heuristic Shakespeare, in the back of our head, a little voice reminds us of those heavy sessions and long essays in college rooms, dissecting Iago, Lady Macbeth and Puck. Why would anyone, the little voice squeaks, use the word ‘heuristic’ for an app that intends to be the newest offering that the acting genius of Sir Ian McKellen has brought forth? Why make Shakespeare sound so stuffy?

Heuristic Shakespeare, a series of apps for iPad, is edited by Ian McKellen and Jonathan Bates
Heuristic Shakespeare, a series of apps for iPad, is edited by Ian McKellen and Jonathan Bates

Luckily, editor’s note on the store says: We had to look it up too — but 'Heuristic' simply means you can learn something for yourself. Well, we swiftly download Heuristic Shakespeare, the first of a series of 37 separate apps that de-mystify plays by Shakespeare. McKellen and Prof Jonathan Bates use the famous Arden notes (again, memories of holding on to these editions in library halls come to mind). The first in the series is The Tempest, a play heavily debated and loved, right from the sprightly fairy Ariel to Caliban, the beast-like islander.

Reading the script
Toggle professional dialogue delivery

After choosing one of three “discreet” levels, for beginners, mid-level and advanced (we tried all three), the play’s script opens up. It’s replete with brief explanations for phrases and words that Shakespeare crafts so brilliantly, and is perhaps lost on our texting, 140-character minds. But any online notes portal could achieve this, right?

Reading the script
Reading the script

That’s where you have got to let the magic of Heuristic Shakespeare take over. It weaves a web of connections — video interviews, essays and scene readings — that will have you navigating The Tempest like a breeze. Click on a tab at the bottom centre for a character-map — where are characters positioned at a certain point in the play? At sea, in Caliban’s cave, or on the island? Furthermore, the downloadable scene-by-scene readings have impeccable dialogue delivery and sound FX. These videos give you the option of toggling between reader, viewer and listener — three ways of taking in the wonder of Shakespeare. If you prefer the quieter version, say while travelling in the local train or while you are waiting at a café for your date to arrive, the app will provide a clean, focused reading experience, along with the idiosyncratic drawings by David Hughes.

But, we want more. Both in terms of distraction and substance. We download character interviews, and Prospero, essayed by McKellen is our choice. Set against a black background, the actor muses about what it means to be Prospero. We sigh. If only such a Shakespeare app had existed while we were studying it in the 90s. The app, as it turns out, is described as “an insanely robust educational app”, but we think it could be more than just that. It helps you relish the playwright, in a handy way that appeals to all your senses.

At the end of our Shakespeare moment, we head to the help section of the app, to see what we have missed. Oh, and we confess, nothing like McKellen’s commanding voice telling you how to go about the app. For a minute there, he had us confused between the Bard and Gandalf.

Heuristic Shakespeare is available only for iPad and costs Rs 370. There’s no word yet about an Android version.

We loved the clean pages, scene readings and character sketches 

We shrugged off the section on Shakespeare, which while detailed, was confusing

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