Faber’s new app The Sonnets (developed in conjunction with the Arden Shakespeare, Illuminations and Touch Press) is an ambitious undertaking. All 154 poems and the narrative poem A Lover’s Complaint are performed, annotated and analysed in a variety of ways.
An accomplished actor is filmed ‘performing’ each poem, the text from both the Arden edition and the 1609 Quarto is included and there are textual notes from both the Arden edition and from a new book by poet Don Paterson (Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets).
In addition, there are interviews with very eminent Shakespeare scholars, actors like James Shapiro, Katherine Duncan-Jones and my particular favourite Cicely Berry the RSC’s Director of Voice and Text. The interviews (or ‘perspectives’) cover everything from the usual points of debate about ‘Who is Mr W.H.?’ to what the Sonnets might have sounded like and how to read them today. Readers (or users) are encouraged to make their own notes and, if so inclined, share them via email, Facebook or Twitter. It all feels genuinely interactive.
The cast of performers is superb: A-list actors such as Sir Patrick Stewart, Fiona Shaw, David Tennant, Simon Russell Beale, Dominic West, Simon Callow and Harriet Walter; academics Katherine Duncan- Jones, Henry Woudhuysen, Cicely Berry and James Shapiro; poets (Andrew Motion and Don Paterson) and a terrific selection of up-and-coming actors (Adetomiwa Edun, Tunji Kasim and Emily Plumtree). It’s a great and varied cast. (Did I mention Stephen Fry? It almost seems superfluous to do so – but naturally he appears). Cicely Berry’s reading of sonnet 129 is worth the price of the app alone.
The video interviews (‘Perspectives’) are bite-sized but informative and surprisingly entertaining. I imagine they would provide very useful starting points for classroom discussions if the app is used in school – which it certainly should be. The interviews are reflective of a refreshingly ‘unstuffy’ feel to the whole project.
Using the app couldn’t be easier – you can choose how to access the poems by any number of routes (performances, facsimile, modern text) and flick seamlessly through, search for particular words and compile a list of your favourites. The performers also nominate their own favourites.
When you select a particular sonnet, buttons at the bottom of the screen allow you to view the text, the Quarto facsimile or to play the performance of the poem – while a sidebar provides the Arden notes, Don Paterson’s commentary and a space to add your own notes. As a teaching tool its benefits are immediately obvious – the performances lift the words off the page/screen and the notes provide entry points for further discussion. The only extra I’d have liked to have seen is a Further Reading section. Faber might argue that the academic apparatus embedded in the app is sufficient but there is such a wealth of good and not-so-good scholarship on the Sonnets out there, that some informed guidance from those they have enlisted would have been a very useful conduit to further study.
This is a minor quibble –Shakespeare’s Sonnets is an ambitiously conceived, superbly executed app. It embraces technology but not in such a way that the work is lost. Faber, Touch Press, Illuminations and the Arden Shakespeare have made absolutely sure the work is always to the fore – helping the reader to understand and enjoy the sonnets in new ways. Highly recommended.
Alex Peake Tomkinson spoke to Henry Volans, Head of Digital at Faber, about the app
Why did you choose to follow up The Waste Land app with this project?
We wanted to stretch the form, avoiding a ‘rinse and repeat’ of The Waste Land. The modular structure – 154 sonnets – seemed to us to lend itself perfectly to the form. It was an ideal platform to base the work on, gathering notes and interpretations and filming new performances.
Did you want to tie in with the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, or was the timing coincidental?
Coincidental. Apps need to be evergreen to be successful. In my view it’s a bad idea to peg them to passing moments. I very much hope that Sonnets will still be in use, and selling, when much of the Olympiad with its competing Shakespeare projects has been forgotten.
What were the aims of this project?
The key creative and cultural aim was to build the best edition of the Sonnets we could imagine, harnessing a variety of skills from software development to film-making and scholarship, with Faber, Touch Press, Illuminations and Arden. Commercial success is key as this is privately-funded work without any external or public funds behind it.
How have you assessed the success of those aims?
Critically, from user reviews to tech blogs to the Sunday Times and New York Times, we’ve had an exceptional reception. Commercial success is easy to measure through sales and rankings. I’m keen to do more to follow up what we know informally about use of the app in education.