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The Independent Culture
NIT could be argued that a Macbeth karaoke, though crass on the face of it, is a useful contribution to cultural civility. Stage productions of Shakespeare have long been choral works, the players accompanied by the murmuring of audiences for whom the dramatic spell appears to induce involuntary recitation. A karaoke facility on CD-ROM, allowing individuals to play the big scenes in the privacy of their homes, might divert this impulse into a harmless channel.

This may seem an egregious claim to make for Macbeth, of all dramas, given the passions that could be aroused in the febrile minds of, say, a young married couple taking turns at Act 2, Scene 2: "Enter Macbeth with two bloody daggers ... " But the Scottish Play is safe for domestic enactment on CD-ROM, since the players are tied to the screen by the mouse. You couldn't try this at home, even if you wanted to. (Nor in Bass pubs, contrary to a recent newspaper report. A spokeswoman told me that Bass would be prepared to consider a Bardic karaoke, but - mindful of Christopher Marlowe's fate, perhaps - they would have to think carefully about which of their taverns would be suitable.)

Besides the red-handed scene, Voyager's CD-ROM offers a karaoke facility for Act 1, Scene 7; "If it were done when 'tis done ... " The reader deputises for Ian McKellen here, or for Judi Dench: the core of the work is a combination of the text and the audio track (which can be switched off) from the 1976 Royal Shakespeare Company production, directed by Trevor Nunn. Actors of this calibre are above edutainment - and so, apart from the karaoke gimmick, is this CD-ROM. It's a model of sympathetic production, based on a low-key but exquisite graphic framework of Celtic spirals rendered in grey. As is both proper and necessary with classic literature, the design evokes moods, both of the Scottish setting and of dark psychological intricacy, while remaining discreetly in the background.

A measure of the success of this presentation is the way in which the multimedia elements enhance its sense of integrity, rather than pulling the package apart. The "picture gallery" is rich, ranging from Shakespearian London to the glamourous Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh at Stratford in 1955. The cinema itself is also featured, with clips from the Welles and Polanski films, as well as from Kurosawa's Throne of Blood; all with critical commentaries.

The disc succeeds both as an aesthetic object in its own right, and as an instrument that nurtures the reader's desire to return to a text that is already familiar. It also breaks new commercial ground. In this country, the US Voyager range is marketed by Astrion, who have decided to price the titles at pounds 19.99 each. This knocks the stuffing out of the rival HarperCollins Macbeth, based on the BBC Shakespeare production, which retails at pounds 49. It also brings CD-ROMs into the price range of hardback books, and within sight of audio CDs. The pricing of CD-ROMs remains largely a matter of guesswork: one can only hope this turns out to be an inspired guess.

The Voyager range is a beacon in the CD-ROM industry, daring as it does to resist the inertia of the middlebrow. Import copies of its disks carry a sticker commanding "Bring Your Brain". As yet, Astrion haven't announced UK releases for the more cerebral titles in the range (various classical music presentations; Stephen Jay Gould on evolution), but with luck the price experiment will be successful enough to encourage them to tackle the serious customers.