PLAY ON! SHAKESPEARE IN SILENT FILM

PrintE-mail Written by Ian White

When you think about it, doesn’t the idea of adapting Shakespeare’s plays into silent films seem a bit like a fool’s errand? Surely the real power of Shakespeare lies in his dialogue, the language, and poetry, so if you can’t hear the words then what’s the point? Well, the BFI’s fascinating new Blu-ray compilation – a selection of scenes from two dozen of the rarest ‘Shakespeare silents’ (around 300 Shakespeare-inspired films had been produced by the end of the silent decade) – proves there definitely is a point, and that even without sound the Bard of Avon’s stories lose none of their ability to thrill, enchant, horrify, and make us laugh at grown men wearing ass’s heads. This collection really is something special.

It’s almost impossible to pick out favourite moments (there are way too many) but here are some of the highlights: in Vitagraph’s gorgeous A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which proved cinema’s superiority over theatre by incorporating some lovely woodland exteriors and in-camera effects), Puck literally flies around the globe to gather a magical herb for the Queen of the Fairies while other fairies pop in and out of frame so rapidly it would give the cast of Rentaghost a headache... King Lear with his Fool, cowering beneath animated lightning on a very surreal looking backdrop of Salisbury Plain… a terrific version of The Tempest with some ingenious special effects, especially a scene where Prospero watches from his stage-bound cave while a tiny model ship disappears beneath some realistic night-black waves… a beautiful colour-tinted excerpt from The Merchant of Venice… and John Gielgud’s first cinematic appearance, playing Romeo against Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies’ diminutive Juliet. Who knew that forty years later this nymph-like beauty would be terrifying audiences in Hammer’s The Witches and The Devil Rides Out?

But that’s only the beginning, and once you’ve enjoyed the main feature there’s a generous assortment of special features to dive into – longer versions of King Lear, The Winter’s Tale (which includes some shameless ‘reimagining’ of Shakespeare’s original – forget ‘exeunt pursued by a bear’ how about ‘exeunt tossed inside a volcano’? (who knew Michael Bay made silent movies? No, just kidding) and a 1911 Richard III that includes: hysterical violence (the best part is when Richard stands over a victim and repeatedly stabs him like he’s taking the temperature of a turkey), shameless over-the-top wooing of strange women at funerals, and a nifty dream sequence with some impressively seamless transitioning between the various ghosts. And there’s so much more, including an engrossing look at how the specially commissioned musical soundtrack was created, various commentaries, a chirpy 1925 era travelogue of Stratford-On-Avon and a very nicely illustrated booklet.

As Shakespeare once wrote ‘Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage’, which has got nothing to do with this Blu-ray but we wanted to end the review pretending to sound clever. But what would really be clever is if you don’t let this wonderful collection pass you by. ‘Tis highly recommended, verily and forsooth.

Extras: Introduction / Play On! Making the Music / commentaries by Judith Buchanan / Illustrated booklet

PLAY ON! SHAKESPEARE IN SILENT FILM / CERT: U / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: VARIOUS / RELEASE DATE: JULY 18TH

 


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