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Reinventing Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet; Macbeth; A Midsummer Night's Dream, BBC Shakespeare on videodisc, Pounds 300 per title; Pioneer Laserdisc Player, CLD- V23000, barcode reader and any one title, Pounds 1,000, Vektor, The Oaks, Preston Road, Chorley PR7 1PL.

Arnold Evans discovers the Bard's works look even better on laserdisc. If the video cassette player didn't exist, English teachers, although not noted for their technical prowess, would have had to invent it. Other than having the school retain a resident ensemble of compliant actors willing to pause or fast forward at the press of a button, can anything beat a video player when it comes to presenting Shakespeare's plays to pupils? Answer: yes, the Pioneer Laserdisc Player with Barcode Reader.

I've been using the laserdisc player with barcode reader to enjoy Romeo and Juliet, one of the first three titles from the BBC Shakespeare series being published by Vektor in January. Although I wasn't surprised by the CD-quality sound and laser-sharp picture, I was amazed to find how genuinely easy it is to operate and the number of classroom uses to which this ingenious technology can be put.

Technophobes will be glad to hear there is no keyboard, mouse, or hefty instruction manual. You simply link the player with a single cable to a standard television. The play is on three LP-size discs which the manufacturers promise are virtually indestructible. You slip them into the machine, like CDs into the hi-fi. Then all you have to do is press play and be transported to fair Verona with its impeccably digitised star-cross'd lovers.

The hand-held remote control is as easy to operate as that of a video recorder. It only takes seconds to master the various buttons that allow you to rewind, pause, jump frame and so on. The remote control also serves as a barcode scanner. Clutching it - like Prospero with his wand - you can choose from a bank of barcodes to execute the various commands.

I had visions of the barcodes being like those on rogue bags of frozen peas which have the checkout assistant scanning frenetically before finally having to go through the laborious process of keying in a long string of numbers. But I've scanned thousands in the last few days, and am happy to report that on the half-dozen occasions when the barcode didn't register on the first attempt, it always did on the second.

You don't appreciate just how useful the scanner is until you open the printed text of the play supplied with the discs. Nearly 500 passages of 10 lines or so have been highlighted and labelled with a barcode. Simply scan the barcode, and as if by magic within two or three seconds that sequence is accessed. So if you were waxing lyrical on, for instance, the role of Tybalt , you could illustrate effortlessly every point you wanted to make by instantly summoning the pertinent moment from the play.

There are countless other ways in which the technology can be exploited, many of which are explored in the 200 pages of photocopiable support material which accompany the discs. Barcodes, incidentally, can be photocopied as effectively as any other print, so pupils can be issued with worksheets which enable them to access the laserdisc for themselves.

The activities range from simple revision exercises to sophisticated studies of Shakespeare's language; from crosswords which have barcodes as clues to an examination of Shakespeare's use of quatrains. Pupils can fill in the blanks in a long synopsis of the play, checking their answers by using the conveniently-placed barcodes to summon the relevant scene. Or they can go on "a quote quest" or write their own character studies after first viewing a pre-selected batch of snippets. Or they can perform their own television report of the fatal duel, illustrating it by selecting a sequence of "film clips", simply by scanning the barcodes provided.

What makes this source material particularly useful is that it needn't involve the teacher in any time-consuming preparatory work. A study of imagery in the play, for instance, is made easier by having a bank of relevant barcodes conveniently printed on a single page. There are similar sheets on the characters, the themes, staging, dramatic irony and a range of other topics.

Other clusters of barcodes yield useful clips for a game of "What happens next?" Another sheet conjures up extracts from the play in sound only. Pupils guess who's speaking to whom, before scanning another barcode that repeats the extract with vision.

Pupils can speculate on different interpretations of the play by summoning up 104 stills of archive material dating back to David Garrick. They can watch two short lectures by Germaine Greer. Some of the scenes can be played with a voice-over of actors and director explaining the thinking behind the staging; others can be dubbed with a modern "translation" of the speeches.

Here, then, is an ideal way of encouraging pupils to gain that familiarity with the text which is ultimately crucial to an understanding of Shakespeare. Indeed, if the laserdisc player with barcode reader didn't exist, English teachers would feel compelled to invent it.

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