Much Ado about Digital Theatre’s streaming of Shakespeare

It’s YouTube’s (s GOOG) fault, the $7.99 I just sent to England. There I was, minding my own business, just looking for a clip from Doctor Who to send to a friend, when I noticed the sponsored video results at the top of the search page:

The reason that top result popped up on my Doctor Who search is that the named Much Ado stars, David Tennant and Catherine Tate, had previously worked together on Who. As a fan of both actors, I’d heard about the production, but as I tragically do not live in London, I didn’t think I’d ever get to see it. That was because, until this week, I had never heard of Digital Theatre, which makes “the best of British theatre” (according to its tagline) available to the rest of the world for digital rental or download.

Founded in 2009, Digital Theatre currently hosts 13 full-length filmed productions (plus educational resources) that represent a range of contemporary and classic works, including Into the Woods, The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Comedy of Errors, and The Container, a play performed inside a shipping container .

The default pricing is for British pounds, though a pull-down menu switches that to American dollars or Euros; streaming rental prices range from $3.49 to $7.99, while HD downloads are available for $10-$17.99 — essentially comparable to the same rates Apple (s AAPL) charges for films on iTunes.

(Pro-tip: Even if you’re in the UK, try to buy with American dollars — for some reason the British pricing, by current conversion rates, is a bit more expensive.)

Once I’d signed up for a Digital Theatre account, paying for a 48-hour rental of Much Ado was relatively simple, though the actual technology was rather disappointing: The stream was only available via a crude browser-based Flash player, meaning that I couldn’t stream using iPad or iPhone, and the Adobe Air desktop player was a clunky experience, especially when trying to skip forward or backwards. This is what happens when you spend Apple-level dollars — you expect an Apple-level experience.

David Tennant and Catherine Tate in “Much Ado About Nothing,” via the Digital Theatre Player.

Of course, perspective here is key. While the experience could be improved, I still got to watch a lively (albeit slightly campy) Shakespeare production from the other side of the world, one that I’d thought I’d never get a chance to see. Streaming a video of a theatrical performance in a sweaty apartment in Los Angeles is of course no comparison to really taking in a show — but for teachers, theater fans, and anyone who’s ever cursed the ephemeral nature of live performance, sites like Digital Theatre still feel a bit like a miracle.