Silent Shakespeare – BFI at St James’s Theatre

The heyday of the silent film was undoubtedly the 1920s when a combination of great cinematography and glamorous ‘movie stars’ drew audiences to the cinema. Yet the first moving pictures were thought to have been captured about forty years earlier in the 1880s undergoing continual refinement and innovation before the First World War helped to boost cinema-going. The BFI have unearthed and restored a collection of 6 incredible, potted Shakespeare plays filmed in Europe and America between 1899 and 1911, lasting between 1 and 20 minutes, and given a brand new score played live by the London Contemporary Orchestra.

Shown in chronological order, we see a one-scene King John, a UK production from 1899 – essentially a man on a throne gesticulating woefully; a fascinating version of The Tempest from, 1908 which although fairly brief has Ariel disappear and reappear in shot; A Midsummer Night’s Dream was my favourite, filmed in a forest with brilliant costumes and great sense of the mischievous atmosphere of the play (USA, 1909); King Lear from Italy in 1910 was tinted with coloured costumes, demonstrating how film-makers were developing techniques that would take another 30 years to become widely used. The actors, especially Lear, conveyed the story so well that you got a real sense of his sadness and despair as he finally came to understand the true value of his daughters; Twelfth Night also 1910 but from the USA, had lovely comic timing whilst Italy’s Merchant of Venice from the same year had some great characterisation. Richard III, a UK film from 1911, was by far the longest, taking inspiration from the complexity of the original play, interspersed with direct quotes. Whatever historians now think, this Richard wasn’t a hunchback but he was a ruthless murderer.

These films are fascinating insight into the quite rapid advancement of both visual technique and acting skill in this early period – moving, in just 12 years, from a shaky single frame to experimental multi-scene films. The music in any silent film is enormously important in helping to set the mood, and there’s something quite special about hearing it played live. Somehow you hear the music better and it enhances what you see. Last year a BFI-Barbican collaboration screened Hitchcock’s The Lodger staring Ivor Novello, with live music from the London Symphony Orchestra, which at the time, was a completely new experience. The score for Silent Shakespeare is performed by just six musicians from the London Contemporary Orchestra (3 violins, a cello, a guitar and a piano) and suits each play so well.

These are quite rare opportunities in London so I’d recommend going if you hear about them; the Albert Hall is showing The Artist with live music at the end of December. Neither the BFI nor St James’s Theatre advertised Silent Shakespeare widely it seemed – there were around 20 people for the matinee, and I only booked the night before because I accidentally saw it in Time Out. They don’t seem to have any more performances scheduled, but the films are on DVD and a really lovely example of early cinema. Let’s hope the BFI dusts off a few more silent classics and gives them a special live-music screening.

Silent Shakespeare is a BFI production shown at St James’s Theatre.

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. I am part of the London theatre critic team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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