Friday, 1 April 2016

Life’s a walking shadow… Play On! Shakespeare in Silent Cinema, BFI with The Globe Theatre Musicians

Herbert Beerbohm Tree in King John (1899)
This was a fascinating and very rewarding experiment, like watching two different codes take on each other’s sport – St Helens vs Harlequins? - as musicians used to accompanying and improvising around live plays took on filmed performances from over a century ago.  It was a different pace of performance for the Globe musicians featuring wordless pantomime of familiar texts and interwoven narratives spanning two dozen films and four decades.

But this is why live cinema is so rewarding. Here was a duet across four centuries and two widely divergent media: can we have a return match with Stephen Horne, John Sweeney and Neil Brand playing along at the Globe and the Players supporting a screening of Asta Nielsen, Emil Jennings and Herbert Beerbohm Tree (how his spirit would love that!)?

The Merchant of Venice (1916)
Tonight was the World premiere of Play On! Shakespeare in Silent Cinema a film celebrating silent Shakespeare as part of the BFI’s celebration of the playwright’s life on the 400th anniversary of his death.  Expertly curated by the BFI’s Curator of Silent Film Bryony Dixon, produced by Jane Giles and expertly edited by Becci Jones and Editpool, the film compiles samples from the archive in five thematically-linked acts complete with a Prologue and Epilogue.

On the Globe team is Musical Director Bill Barclay, who has to supervise scores from five of the theatre’s regular composers – one for each act… Jules Maxwell, Olly Fox, Alex Baranowski, Sophie Cotton and Stephen Warbeck (who just happens to have an Oscar for Best Original Score for Shakespeare in Love and a BAFTA for The Hollow Crown).

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1909)
These plays are so well imbedded in our performance culture that it’s no surprise that early film turned to The Bard for inspiration and ready-made scenarios.

It is estimated that something like 500 adaptations of Shakespeare were made during the silent era and Play On! has samples from 26 of them to create a Shakespearean cinematic  juke-box. The films are the thing and they are remarkably varied and vibrant, from The Merchant of Venice (1916) set in your actual Venice and in startling stencilled colour, to King Lear battling the elements at Stonehenge and Asta’s Hamlet flirting with Heinz Stieda’s Horatio the films take in a range of locations, styles and emotions.

Asta Nielsen & Heinz Stieda - Hamlet (1921)
It could jar but it doesn’t as the passion of the original artists comes across so well in this format. Robin Baker introduced and highlighted the oldest film in the collection, King John (1899!) which features one of the Victorian era’s greats, the aforementioned Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who used the film to promote his theatrical tour of the same play. Yes, even in 1899, theatre was working with film and both had to work hard to make a living!

The silent era lasted for well over thirty years and it’s no surprise that the clips on view showed so much stylistic range as we went from Victorian gothic to the sophistication of twenties Weimar – you could trace the evolution of performance from stage-borne gesturing of the hybrid years to the emotive micro-management of the post-close-up era.

The Tempest (1908)
You can’t judge the source material from the samples shown - especially as I’ve only seen a couple – but what you saw made you want to see more: a spritely A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1909) that looks very blissed-out noughties, a moody Tempest (1908) and that Merchant in Venice are all ones I’ll look out for.

The source material was multi-national and not just from the English-speaking US but also Italy (coals to Carbonia perhaps…), France and Germany with Emil Jannings’ menacing Othello ready to exact his miss-directed vengeance on Ica von Lenkeffy’s Desdemona.

There was also the surprise of what was probably John Gielgud’s first appearance on film aged 20, as he looks up towards his love in the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet (sadly it's only part of a compilation on Living Paintings from Eve’s Film Review in 1924).

Emil and Ica
As many films as were featured, the number of instruments played matched them – 22 by my count but there were things stringed, hit and plucked in unorthodox ways that boosted that number. Jon Banks played accordion, santouri, harp, mandolin and an unexpected tuba sometimes, it appeared, all at the same time. Sarah Homer was on flute, piccolo, recorder, clarinet and bass clarinet, Harry Napier on cello, tenor horn and dilruba and Dario-Rossetti-Bonell on guitar, mandolin and oud. Stephen Bentley-Klein slacked a bit on just violin, trumpet and flugelhorn whilst Rob Millett took the Jimmy Page award for unconventional violin bowing on his vibraphone whilst using his other hand on percussion and cimbalom…

The choice of musicians for the on-screen text was a clear one as Bryony Dixon said: "… who better to ask than the pros? The Globe's wealth of experience in musical treatments of the plays promises to bring vivacity and creativity to these charming scenes.”

Will tells his tales
Silent film watchers already know the potency of live music combined with screen but this exercise illustrated a broader connection as Bill Barclay says: “…it makes music’s role in both theatre and film more visible, which is one of the Globe’s great hallmarks of style.”

Live music in the intimacy of the Globe makes it the unique venue it is and, until tonight, I hadn’t really made the connection with the work just up the river at the BFI.

There will be more screenings of Play On! (with recorded score) in UK cinemas throughout April and it will also be available to stream on both the BFI Player and Globe Player – details on the BFI website before a DVD and Blu-ray becomes available in the summer.

The screening was also part of the BFI’s ongoing Sonic Cinema strand of which more detail can be gleaned here and their celebration of Shakespeare on Film continues through April and May with plenty more unmissable events.

No comments:

Post a Comment