Saturday, 9 July 2016

All the world’s a screen… Play On! Shakespeare in Silent Film on DVD/Blu-ray

“We’re not creating Elizabethan music, we’re not creating early twentieth century music… we’re doing something for us to enjoy these incredible films right now…“ Stephen Warbeck, composer

When I wrote about the debut of the Play On! Back in April, the focus was very much on the exhilarating live performance from the Globe Theatre musicians as much as the subject matter. The films whisked by and just as you were spotting the plays you’d move onto the next one: impressions of Shakespeare all featuring the buzz of silent invention as the medium of cinema was rapid-prototyped over its first three decades.

Now the BFI have released the piece on home cinema – DVD and Blu-ray – there’s more time to study the source material and, in addition to discrete titles identifying each clip, there’s a handsome booklet that lists each film used and their players: it is fascinating stuff and so very compelling for silent buffs like me who just have to know, you know.

Pina Fabbri and V Cocchi in The Winters Tale (1913)
In an introduction to the film from the BFI’s Bryony Dixon and Professor Judith Buchanan explain the origins of Shakespeare in silence and its rapid development as film-makers began to present the stories in ways only cinema could allow: special effects, lavish costumers and stencil colouring, grand sets, casts of thousands and locations including Venice for The Merchant.

From early films, limited to less than a few minutes and which showed just key moments from the plays, productions became more ambitious as the 1900s moved on and by the post-war era we have Asta Nielsen’s gender-bent Hamlet which not only attempts the entire narrative it also adds a twist or two.

Performance style developed also and from those first precious glimpses of Beerbohm-Tree's performing King John in Victorian theatrical style, through screen-skilled pantomime of the 1900s to a fascinating Shylock from Matheson Lang in 1916 to the naturalism of Nielsen (who, in fairness, played a huge part in these developments from 1910’s Afgrunden onwards) and the screen acting intensity of Emil Jannings whose Othello leers out of the screen with the force of his anger and betrayal.

Herr Jannings
Play On’s five acts are based on these developing trends and whilst they make a more cohesive statement in the context of the disc’s extras, they are also an opportunity for some wonderful music and it is the music which makes everything gel – no mean feat considering the changes in visual tempo across the twenty films.

In another visual extra, the Globe musicians are seen recording the works in the candle-lit Sam Wannamaker Theatre – the Globe’s covered playhouse – and it would have been interesting to see them play the whole pieces in that context. This band of multi-instrumentalists – and they are a band – run the gamut from pastoral to industrial with one section seeing them hitting metal with hammers as Mark Anthony appeals to the populace after Caesar’s assassination: Einstürzende Neubauten meets Warwickshire poetry in Rome.

Julius Caesar (1908)
This was a challenge in variable tonality but one the composers and musicians were more than prepared for.  As Bill Barclay, the Globe’s director of music says the score reflects “…the unique theatre music know-how that the Globe engenders in all its live energy and variety.” His composers, Jules Maxwell, Olly Fox, Alex Baranowski, Sophie Cotton and Stephen Warbeck all came experienced in the art of emotional engagement “in-the moment” as audiences normally hear the music only once – much like their silent counterparts – but also with an intuitive approach to telling richly-detailed stories with “sound and surprise”.

Sarah Homer and Jon Banks
All of which depends on the abilities of this very talented band of players to express and there’s so much experience in the dextrous hands of the band: Jon Banks plays accordion, santouri, harp and tuba, Sarah Homer plays flutes, piccolos, recorders, clarinet and bass clarinet, Harry Napier on cello, tenor horn and dilruba and Dario-Rossetti-Bonell on guitar, mandolin and oud. Stephen Bentley-Klein combines violin, trumpet and flugelhorn whilst Rob Millett plays vibraphone, percussion and cimbalom.

All are very adapt in the art of hammers on steel as even Sarah demonstrates in the aforementioned section: for a flautist she strike very hard! But they’re all jacks and masters of these instruments – a team: a band!

The band play on in  the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
I watched the DVD twice – once just to enjoy the sights and sounds and again to dig deeper into the source material. Sandwiched between a Prologue and an Epilogue are five acts…

Act I Artifice – deals with the camera-trickery that allowed a clear demarcation between the cinema and the stage. Here we see Puck (Gladys Hulette) take off and fly around the Globe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1909) that looks joyful and intriguing – the full 12 minutes is included in the extras. Characters appear and disappear and poor Bottom (William V Ranous) gains the head of an ass in the blink of an eye.

Prospero releases the fairy sprite Ariel from a tree in a 1908 Tempest whilst in Julius Caesar, Calpurnia has disturbing dreams about the Ides of March. You get two ghosts for Hamlet’s father from 1908 and 1913 before Richard of York dreams his own demise in a 1911 UK version.

Gladys Hulette about to take off in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1909)
Act II Spectacle – there’s only so much room on a stage and on film the canvas quickly widened to include real locations and casts of thousands. A shadowed figure carries a scythe across a field filmed from a low camera-angle in a 1913 Italian version of A Winter’s Tale which was 43 minutes long. Another Italian production was Il Merchante di Venezia (1910) filmed not only in Venice but in sumptuous stencilled colour.

Il Merchante di Venezia (1910)
We’re back in Venice for a UK take in 1916 which features what looks like a superb portrayal of Shylock by Matheson Lang. But even earlier films had grandiose ideas with the 1908 Tempest having a brilliant sequence with actors on stage in the foreground with the shot of ship floating on an actual sea in the background.

But the films were getting bigger and more ambitious culminating in some huge set pieces: Caesar’s triumphant march through Rome, Cleopatra’s royal barge arriving centre-stage to carry her off in glory and a cast of thousands in the weary spread post-battle as the old king is carried wounded down a hill in Asta’s Hamlet (1920).

Set, sea and ship in The Tempest (1908)
Act II Dramatis Personae – focuses on the major players in the canon and no matter when the films were made, we recognise so many old faces.

Other rarer plays get “quoted” including Cardinal Wolsey (1912) – admittedly of disputed authorship – which sees a naughty Henry (Tefft Johnson) eyeing up the latest arrival at his court as she gets dressed in her boudoir – it’s Clara Kimball Young as Anne Boleyn: an early foretaste of Syd and Babs! There’s more star-spotting with a young Francesca Bertini playing a colourised Cordelia in Re Lear (1910) another included in full in the extras.

Tefft Johnson eyes up Clara Kimball Young in Cardinal Wolsey (1912)
Sometimes the clips are unfamiliar or fragmentary but the music holds firm and brings a cohesion and consistency of emotional engagement in spite of the sweep of centuries, style and content.

Act IV Performance – this section focuses on the actors and the development from stage to screen performance.

We start with those precious seconds of Herbert Beerbohn Tree as the dying King John – this is essentially a promo film for his 1899 tour of the play and features co-star Dora Senior as Prince Henry (hope she didn’t get typecast).

Johnston Forbes-Robertson in Hamlet (1913)
The expressions move on and as close ups develop we begin to see a more naturalistic tone as demonstrated by a trio of Hamlets. The 1908 Amleto version is crude in comparison with Johnston Forbes-Robertson’s reprisal of his signature role in 1913 – he was an impressive 60 years old at the time but still spritely.

But none are more sophisticated than Der Asta and her scene welcoming the hot new student, Horatio, is a hoot as she eyes the young man up and down with barely-contained glee. Emile Jannings comes close though in Othello (1922) – larger than life he’s a dangerous weapon whose main danger is when he’s miss-directed.

Matheson Lang's Shylock broods in The Merchant of Venice (1916)
Act V Famous Scenes – all ends on a high with a run through of some of the greatest hits; as crowd-pleasing now as they ever were.

Othello blows out his candles and nurses his raging grief as Richards murders those boys one more time. The Macbeths absorb the enormity of their murderous passions and Brutus proves to Julius that he didn’t always have his best interests at heart… Lose ends are tied up at pace in a celebration of Shakespeare’s undying ability to resolve a plot.

Florence Turner left and right as Viola/Cesario in Twelfth Night (1910)
But it’s not quite over as we’re shown glimpses of “Shakespeare’s Land” – Stratford-on-Avon in eternal calm in films from 1910 through to 1940 a reminder of the connection we still feel through place to the writer of these works whether it’s in his school, his house, The Swan or The Globe.

In addition to those already mentioned the extras include the remastered seven films of Silent Shakespeare – along with King Lear (1909), The Winter’s Tale (1913) and Living Paintings – John Gielgud’s screen debut from 1924.

The DVD and Blu-Ray are released on 18th July and are available from the BFI Shop – you can pre-order here or Amazon.

As commemorations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s leaving us goes, this one is appropriately memorable – it only makes you want to see more… so, play on!

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