Saturday, 29 August 2015

Boys don’t cry… Hamlet (1921), Wilton’s Music Hall with Robin Harris

Another year another celebrity Prince of Denmark and as London reels from the Cumberbatch-lash (To be or not to be… was moved in previews to the start of the play in the Barbican’s new version - imagine!?) this screening at wonderful Wilton’s provided the perfect opportunity to reflect on just how malleable this play can be.

This wasn’t the first time that a woman had played Hamlet but it was almost certainly the first time that the Prince had actually been a Princess – one forced to conceal her sex in order to maintain the Danish throne and who’s dithering route to revenge is now explained by her femininity. Well, that’s how Dr. Edward P. Vining's book The Mystery of Hamlet had it in 1881 but here, with Asta Nielsen as the Prince, it’s a little different…

One of the tinted sequences - Hamlet rides with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Die Asta was calling all of the shots and with this being her self-titled company’s first production, she appointed the directors Svend Gade and Heinz Schall and – one presumes – had plenty of say in the direction of her character: a Hamlet whose function is not just smothered by surmise (as distant cousin Macbeth once remarked) but through force of circumstance. She is a woman in a brutal man’s world, whose position is purely dependent on her being perceived as a man.

Asta Nielsen and Lilly Jacobson
Some of those down from Hoxton for the evening may have found the premise a little too funny but Asta knew full well what she was about and there are some wonderful digs at Hamlet in the opening titles: “ an ass” said Goethe, “an affected fop” said Herder and a "taseless mix of whim and nonesense" said Voltaire (ooh, get you!). Vining’s theory could explain it all and is all the more gender-bent because of the fact that in Tudor times a young man would have had to play the woman playing the man…

Sometimes it's hard to be a woman...
This was also post-War Germany, after a conflict that had seen women stepping into so many of men’s roles – Asta was already the money and the talent: here was another way for her to promote equality of opportunity…

My father was killed by a Danish sword...but let us put their hatred behind us!
I’d seen the film before – the splendid Edition Filmmuseum DVD and this was the version used for tonight’s screening but I wasn’t just here for the movie and the newly re-furbished Wilton wonderland: I was here for the music. We were treated to an exceptional live score composed by multi-instrumentalist Robin Harris who played piano, flute and percussion whilst regular collaborator Laura Anstee played Cello and a lot more besides. They also had Aaron May on electronics, who sampledg the other players’ and creating enriched soundscapes layered over the acoustic instruments: a fusion of modern composition for silent film with modern sound collage.

Hamlet instructs the players
They provided a multi-textural accompaniment to Nielsen’s meta-textual film and you got the feeling that Asta would have smiled that knowing smile, winked and said “well done”! I especially liked the deployment of the Swanee Whistle but there were many instruments played to great effect throughout highlighting the comedy as well as the usual tragedy – I think this Hamlet was meant to be played with a swagger and to be fun. Mission accomplished Robin, Laura and Aaron!

Hamlet teases Polonius
Hamlet: Drama of Vengeance, to give its full title, is a tour-de-force from Nielsen who, whilst she wouldn’t actually pass for a man does pass as a woman playing at being a man. Mr. From-Hoxton, the jokes are intentional and the country that was busy inventing and perfecting the art of twentieth century cultural transgression was more than capable of holding all of the contradictions of Asta’s Hamlet in its cinematic consciousness all at the same time.

How lovely Provence must be...
Hamlet goes to university and casting an appraising glance up and down Horatio (Heinz Stieda), who is from Provence, remarks how lovely the place must be; she occasionally has to pull her shirt closed to conceal herself and you can imagine the double-think of the Ophelia situation. All is explained by her attempt to keep Horatio away from Polonius’ daughter but there’s a lot of love that might well dare not speak its name otherwise.

Hamlet’s situation starts with her father, also called Hamlet (Paul Conradi), almost dying in battle. Her mother Queen Gertrude (Mathilde Brandt), delivers a baby girl but decides the only way to secure the throne is to tell the world it is a son. King Hamlet recovers but agrees to go along with the deception.

The Danish Royal Family: complicated...
By the time the girl has grown almost into a man, Gertrude has grown tired of her father that she’s carrying on with his brother Claudius (Eduard von Winterstein). A power struggle’s afoot and you wonder how Gertrude is going to break the news to her new lover that her son is nothing like he seems…

The King is removed by snakebite and his funeral wake quickly morphs into a wedding party as his brother and murderer hastily arranges a wedding. Hamlet enters the great hall, dressed in black with her cape flowing impressively behind as she storms towards the throne: she has her suspicions and when she discovers Claudius’ knife next to the snake pit from which he took the viper that did the deed… she knows her enemy.

Hamlet flies in to challenge the new King
How to revenge herself given her precarious position and the new King’s superior strength? Hamlet makes the decision to not only pretend to be mad but to carry on pretending to be a man.

Kindly old Polonius (Hans Junkermann) – who is quite splendidly made up like an out-take from an Aubrey Beardsley illustrated Japanese fairy tale – tries to help the seeming unfortunate who then persuades his daughter Ophelia (Lilly Jacobson) to fall for him and not Horatio… That’s just not going to work out and, by the same token, nor can the Norwegian King Fortinbras (Fritz Achterberg) expect his relationship with the young Price of Denmark to ever be more than… fraternal.

The fair Ophelia gets closer to the water...
Hamlet is always amongst my favourite Shakespeare with an uncertain hero given plenty of great soliloquies en route to the neat bloodbath at the end… Here the tragedy is stripped down and given new dimension as Horatio realises his buddy is really his love: an extra twist – love as well as life wasted.

Asta Nielsen
It goes without saying that Die Asta is quite magnificent – amidst the pantomime the big screen revealed even more of her ability to present the appearance of nuanced reality on film. It’s her casual glances and smaller gestures that succeed the most; underpinning her ability to rise to the more obvious dramatic crescendos.

The Edition Filmmuseum DVD is available direct and can find it on, .com and , too.

More details of Robin Harris can be found on his website which also features musical samples from his score for Der Golem! Lovely stuff.


  1. I really do like Asta's Hamlet, and this is a great review. She is incredibly accomplished and despite the fact that there are two credited directors, I'm quite sure she was calling the shots production-wise. I'm jealous of you having seen it on the big screen! It sounds like an excellent accompaniment.

    1. It's a rare treat to see Asta on the big screen and Wiltons is also a lovely venue - the oldest music hall in Britain! I saw so much more than when I last watched it and it was good to see the show pretty much sold out.

      Thanks for reading - I deliberately held off from reading your excellent analysis until after I'd finished!

      Best wishes, Paul