At 2011’s Future Digital Innovation Awards, the app produced by Touch Press for  The Waste Land won the adult prize.

This doesn’t mean that the London-based digital publishers have sexed up T.S. Elliot’s epic poem but is, instead, a reward for a beautifully presented application that used the possibilities of the iPad  to the full.

I remember the excitement when CD Roms first came out only to find that these mostly proved to be clunky and uninspiring products. They now seem positively archaic by the side of the latest technology.

Instead of going for flashy visuals or gimmicky effects, Touch Press have wisely approached the task of making the experience interactive by focusing first and foremost on content.

Illuminating references and footnotes can be chosen to unobtrusively run down the side of the screen and some intelligently chosen images and photographs put the work in historical perspective. There is also a reproduction of the original manuscript with handwritten notes scrawled by editor, Ezra Pound.

The heart of the app is, of course, the poem itself and it doesn’t try to simplify the work. If anything it emphasises how complex and  ‘difficult’ it is.

One of the “interesting people” chosen to give personal perspectives  in video interviews is author Jeanette Winterson who says that you need to read the poem at least six times before you even begin to get an angle on it. Even then, there are bound to be passages that remain obscure and mysterious. The fact that it is open to such a wide interpretation is one of the reasons it remains a thoroughly modern piece and this is why it lends itself so well to this innovative presentation.

I love the feature which enables you to switch between different readers so that you can hear the same line (e.g. “Hurry up please it’s time”) spoken by Eliot himself (in two separate recordings from 1933 and 1947), Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes, Viggo Mortensen and Fiona Shaw. Hers is by far the most theatrical, a recreation of her celebrated stage performance directed by Deborah Warner. At first, I thought she was taking too many liberties with the text but then I realised that Eliot’s words need to be not just spoken but sung, shouted and performed in character. Shaw brilliantly brings out the contrast between the comic music hall style dialogues and the more portentous sections.

This is the first app I’ve actually paid money for and at €10.99 it’s a real bargain which sets the benchmark very high.

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