22 July 2016

PLAY ON! SHAKESPEARE IN SILENT FILM. (2016) REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS.




PLAY ON! SHAKESPEARE IN SILENT FILM. (2016) FILMS FROM BFI NATIONAL ARCHIVE. MUSIC FROM SHAKESPEARE'S GLOBE. EDITOR: BECCI JONES (EDITPOOL). CURATOR OF SILENT FILM BFI NATIONAL ARCHIVE: BRYONY DIXON. HEAD OF BFI CONTENT: JANE GILES. REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

Ah, good old Willie Shakespeare. This being the 400th year since his demise makes it a good time to talk about all things relating to the Bard of Avon. The old boy was born in 1564 in Stratford-Upon-Avon in Warwickshire. His parents were called John and Mary, just like the couple in Irish religious sitcom FATHER TED who ran the only shop on Craggy Island and who hated each others' guts. 'I'll kill ya, ya prick!' and so on and so forth.

Willie's life was a colourful one. As a nipper, he managed to survive a yucky outbreak of the plague that affected one in every fifteen people in the town where he lived. His Pops, a leather-worker by trade, spent nearly two decades serving as a local government official, which afforded the Shakespeare family great importance and influence in Stratford. Nice work if you can get it!

In 1582, Willie married Anne Hathaway, the eldest daughter of a local farmer. They had three kids together, only two of whom survived. The part of Shakespeare's history that I find incredible comes next. After only a few years of marriage, he buggered off to London for roughly twenty years, leaving his wife and kids behind in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Presumably he sent money home to them and, admittedly, he wrote most of his famous plays and poems during this time, but I still find it a somewhat unsavoury thing for him to have done. Maybe I'm misjudging the fellow here, and certainly an element of mystery shrouds this part of his life, with no-one really knowing why he left or what he went to do. Still, it seems like dead-beat dads aren't purely a twenty-first century phenomenon. Seems like they had 'em in the olden days too!

I was one of the few girls in my class at school who actually enjoyed being made to study Shakespeare's works, of which he had many. MACBETH, the Scottish play, and ROMEO AND JULIET were the two plays I came to know nearly as well as I knew my own name. I was a hopeless romantic with a decidedly gothic turn of mind and I just found it all fascinating.

Witches and wild, windy moors, forbidden love, murder both cold- and hot-blooded, madness, betrayal and horrific hallucinations. What's not to love, I thought as I threw myself into it with abandon. Oddly enough, I preferred MACBETH to ROMEO AND JULIET, the play which you'd think would appeal more to the imagination and sensibilities of the impressionable teenage girl. Apart from the obviously marvellous storyline in MACBETH, I think I know the reason why this might be.

When I was in possibly my final year of school, our English class was shown a film version of MACBETH, starring Jane Lapotaire as Lady Macbeth, that imprinted itself on my girlish mind for life. It was wonderful, just wonderful. It brought Shakespeare's words to life for us- well, for me, anyway- in a way that possibly just reading them aloud in class mightn't have achieved.

Later on in life, when I was a grown-up movie reviewer, I saw Roman Polanski's superb film version of the Scottish play (1971) and it totally blew me away. It was so good that it was almost unreal. I personally believe that if modern schoolkids were shown a good movie version of any of Shakespeare's plays by their teachers, it would make them much more interested in and captivated by the Bard's works and words. Which brings me neatly to the point of this review. Go, segueway...!

Did you know that many of the earliest silent films were actually movie versions of some of Shakespeare's greatest plays? Film-makers from the 1890s (can you actually imagine that far back in time?) to the 1920s went nuts for putting Shakespeare on film. 

It's hardly surprising, really, as his many oeuvres provided them with a ready-made source of ready-to-go material. It was a seam of gold that they would never really be done mining, if you want to think about it that way.

Anyway, by the end of the silent era, which of course came at the end of the 1920s, about 300 silent movie versions of Shakespeare's works had been committed to celluloid. That's an incredible
achievement by anyone's standards, isn't it?

Most of us will never have seen any of these utterly fascinating little gems of movie history, which is a shame indeed. If some of these films could only be shown to schoolies, it might make them think differently about 'boring old Shakespeare' and convince them, as students of Shakespeare have known for centuries, that the silver-tongued Bard of Avon is as relevant today as he was a whopping four hundred years ago.

What the BFI have done here is really quite extraordinary. They've created a feature-length celebration of Shakespeare's works as silent films by collating marvellous clips from about twenty of the films. These clips include scenes from KING JOHN (1899), the oldest known Shakespeare film, which I think you'll agree is something you don't see every day. Imagine, this film is older than all of your favourite silent movies, from THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA to DER GOLEM and FW Murnau's NOSFERATU.

I'm including a full list of the films included and the years in which they were made just to whet your eager little appetites, heh-heh-heh. I'm sneaky like that. Here we go:

KING JOHN- UK- 1899.
AMLETO- ITALY- 1908.
JULIUS CAESAR- USA- 1908.
THE TEMPEST- UK- 1908.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM- USA- 1909.
MACBETH- ITALY- 1909.
KING LEAR- USA- 1909.
GIULIO CESARE- ITALY- 1909.
IL MERCANTE DI VENEZIA- ITALY- 1910.
TWELFTH NIGHT- USA- 1910.
SHAKESPEARE LAND- UK- 1910.
CLÉOPÂTRE- FRANCE- 1910.
RE LEAR- ITALY- 1910.
RICHARD THE THIRD- UK- 1911.
CARDINAL WOLSEY- USA- 1912.
THE WINTER'S TALE- ITALY- 1913.
HAMLET- UK- 1913.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE- UK- 1916.
HAMLET- GERMANY- 1920.
GLASTONBURY PAST AND PRESENT- UK- 1921.
OTHELLO- GERMANY- 1922.
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW- UK- 1923.
LIVING PAINTINGS (ROMEO AND JULIET) FROM EVE'S FILM REVIEW- UK-1924.
STRATFORD-ON-AVON- UK- 1925.
ENGLAND'S SHAKESPEARE- UK- 1939.
SHAKESPEARE COUNTRY- UK- 1940.

Well, if your appetites aren't whetted after all that, I just don't know what would excite ye, haha. Look how old these films are! The fact that they've survived to this day- with careful preservation, one would imagine- is an amazing achievement in itself.

You'll have great fun being enchanted by both the fairy magic of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM and the sheer awesomeness of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, addressing the skull of Yorick. Did you know that the 'Alas, poor Yorick!' lines are some of the most misquoted ever in the history of literature? 

Hamlet never actually says: 'Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well.' He, in fact, says: 'Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.' Remember that quirky little fact. It could win you points in a pub quiz some day. Also, speaking of famous misquoted lines: 'I think you're gonna need a bigger boat...!'

One more mind-blowing thing about this remarkable collection of films is that we're also shown what is probably darling old John Gielgud's first appearance in film, in the balcony scene from ROMEO AND JULIET. I didn't know he was old enough to have acted in silent films, so that was something else that SHAKESPEARE IN SILENT FILM taught me, haha.

The BFI will release the collection on DVD and BLU-RAY on the 18th of July, 2016, for the very reasonable price of £19.99. It's got some fantastic special features on it including an illustrated booklet containing new writing from Bryony Dixon, the Silent Film Curator of the BFI's National Archive, and Bill Barclay, the Director of Music at Shakespeare's Globe.

The music, incidentally, is one of the best things about this film. It was quite an undertaking on the part of the musicians, some of whom play as many as eight instruments, to create an original score for the collation of these priceless old films. According to Bill Barclay (see above):

'The sum total is a huge pleasure and greater privilege: a chance to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death with a fabulous world-class partner in the BFI, featuring five of London's best composers and six of its finest musicians meeting together on a different pitch to create together in a new way. I hope you enjoy this zig-zagged patchwork of scenes and tunes, and that the music helps breathe new life into these gorgeous scenes, plucked with true affection and care from the vaults of the BFI.'

Aw, that's so lovely! Anyway, for a sense of completion, maybe we'll finish up by taking a quick peek at the end of Shakespeare's life. He returned home to Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1613, after his Globe Theatre burned down during a performance of his play HENRY THE EIGHTH.

The theatre was rebuilt, but the forty-nine-year-old Willie Shakespeare was back in the bosom of his family by then, back in the impressive new gaff he'd purchased for them some years earlier. His son Hamnet had died in 1596, aged only eleven, and no doubt the pain of this event tempered the homecoming with an inevitable tinge of sadness.

Shakespeare was dead of the dreaded typhoid within three years. He was buried in Holy Trinity Church, the Church where he'd been baptized exactly fifty-two years earlier and where other members of his family lay buried.

In the years since his death, he's inspired other playwrights, musical composers, writers, poets, painters and cartoonists, among others, to create their own timeless works of art. SHAKESPEARE IN SILENT FILM is a wholly fitting tribute to one of the greatest writers who ever lived. Buy it, watch it, treasure it and you'll see what I mean.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.

Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger and movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens' fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra's books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:

http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B015GDE5RO

 You can contact Sandra at:


http://sandrafirstruleoffilmclubharris.wordpress.com







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