Play On! Shakespeare In Silent Film (2016) DVD9 and Blu-Ray
The British Film Institute is releasing a fantastic number of films for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, but none is so unexpectedly charming as their 60 minute montage of Shakespeare in silent film. One might have thought it bizarre to see Shakespeare stripped of his words, but the stories are so recognisable that this is barely a problem. What's more, what you're getting here is the history of film itself, with the Bard being seen on screen almost as early as moving image was invented. There are clips of many of his most famous plays - Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, A Winter's Tale, The Tempest - to name but a few. The films are from the UK, Italy, Germany and the USA. And the whole thing is wonderfully edited to give a sense not only of the evolution of the cinematic arts and science but also the way in which actors had to alter their mode of delivery for the big screen.

What's quite amazing is how a hundred and ten years ago, film-makers were using trick photography to convey the magic and wonder of Shakespeare - such as Puck magically appearing and disappearing on screen in A Midsummer Night's Dream. And the way in which productions with a pastoral setting were so effectively re-staged in the countryside. In the second of this five-act film, we focus on the spectacle of Shakespeare in Silent Film - from lavish stage sets of Cleopatra's palace to exotic processions in Julius Caesar.

Part of the charm of the exercise lies in the newly commissioned score that accompanies the film, with work by five composers from the company at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. The score is played by a small band using a multitude of period instruments, echoing the particular rhythms and harmonies of the Tudor world mixed with their take on the Venice or Egypt or Rome.

“Play On!” features clips from the following films:

”King John” (1899) (from the EYE Institute)
”Hamlet” (1908)
”Julius Caesar” (1908)
”The Tempest” (1908)
”A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1909)
”Julius Caesar” (1909)
”The Merchant of Venice” (1910)
”Twelfth Night” (1910)
”Shakespeare Land” (1910)
”Cleopatra” (1910)
”King Lear” (1910)
”Richard III” (1911)
”Cardinal Wolsey” (1912)
”The Winter’s Tale” (1913)
”Hamlet” (1913)
”The Merchant of Venice” (1916)
”Hamlet” (1920)
”Glastonbury Past and Present” (1921)
”Othello” (1922)
”The Taming of the Shrew” (1923)
”Living Paintings” (Romeo and Juliet) - From Eve’s Film Review (1924)
”Stratford-on-Avon” (1925)
”England’s Shakespeare” (1939)
”Shakespeare Country” (1940)

This light-hearted and charming output offers a range across the field so to speak, and we see archive clips of various lengths to one thing they all have in common: the admiration of Shakespeare’s works, adapted for the screen during an era when film was still a silent medium. See King Lear battling the elements at Stonehenge, John Gielgud’s first film appearance in Romeo & Juliet, the magic of a flying ‘Puck’ in Midsummer Night’s Dream, and much more.

Divided into 5 Acts (Artifice, Spectacle, Dramatis personae, Performance, Favourite Scenes) we start with a 2min sequence from 1899 (yes, you read that correctly!) when celebrated Victorian stage actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree is ‘King John’ – a scene filmed on the rooftop studio of the British Mutoscope/Biograph Company on London’s Embankment! Next up is a 8min fragment from 1908 and we see an Italian version of Hamlet titled ‘Amleto’. Not to be outdone, the American Vitagraph Company produced one-reelers of Shakespearean plays like the 1908 take on ‘Julius Caesar (12min), while one year later the same company filmed a funny and magical ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in the forests of New Jersey! In 1909 Vitograph proved that they were equally good when it came to set paintings and so on, as seen in ‘King Lear’ producing a wonderful perspective painting of the White Cliffs of Dover.

At the same time, an Italian version of ‘Macbeth’ (we see a mere 16min) is set, well… in medieval Italy with obviously a distinct Mediterranean feel as opposed to a doom and gloom Scottish atmosphere.

Back on British soil, it was the Co-operative Film Company which produced a 1911 version of ‘Richard III’ starring important Shakespeare performer F. R. Benson as the English king, and Benson also directed the spectacle of which we get to see 23min.

In France, Pathe Freres came up with an opulent version of ‘Cleopatre’ complete with exotic dancers and what have you, while back in the UK it was the Broadwest Film Company who cast Canadian-born stage and film actor Matheson Lang as Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ against a genuine Venetian backdrop.

Later on in 1922, it was celebrated German actor Emil Jannings who played ‘Othello’ in a lavish production by Worner Film (of which we see 30min). There are two sequences of ‘Hamlet’ on the disc, the first is an English production from 1913 featuring distinguished actor Johnstone Forbes-Robertson as the Prince of Denmark, and secondly we have a German version from 1920 which features Danish silent movie star Asta Nielsen in an audacious gender-bender role as the prince!

Undisputed highlight, however, is a sumptuous 43min Italian version of ‘The Winter’s Tale’ from 1913, the film also includes a ‘prologue’ and ‘epilogue’ in which William Shakespeare reads the story to his friends in a tavern.

Inspired are the clips ‘Stratford-On-Avon’ (12min) which is a travelogue following the well-known sites connected to the Bard, and ‘England’s Shakespeare’ (18min) which is a sound film juxtaposing oh so busy modern Britain with oh so tranquil Tudor England.


"An Introduction to Silent Shakespeare" featurette (9:37)
Featuring interviews with author of ”Shakespeare on Film” and ”Shakespeare on Silent Film” Judith Buchanan and with BFI curator Bryony Dixon, the introduction gives a good overview of the visual language of silent films, the reason why Shakespeare was popular with early silents.

"Play On! Making the Music" featurette (10:37)
This featurette includes interviews with The Globe Theater musicians, composers, and director along with behind the scenes clips of the recording process.

"King Lear" 1910 short film with forced commentary by Judith Buchanan (13:22)
The commentary by Buchanan is well informed about the film’s details and about “King Lear”, but unfortunately this is the only audio option on the disc.

"The Winter's Tale" 1913 film with forced commentary by Judith Buchanan (43:08)
Unfortunately the print is incomplete but is mostly intact with much less damage compared to “King Lear”. Buchanan’s commentary is also the only audio option here. It is again very detailed and well spoken as she narrates about the background information, the changes from the original play (a volcano?), and speculation on the missing footage.

"Living Paintings" 1924 short film with forced commentary by Judith Buchanan (1:18)
It’s very rare to see an actor that is well known in “modern” cinema to be in a silent film. This short “Romeo and Juliet” balcony scene reenactment for the cine-magazine “Living Paintings” features a very young John Gielgud as Romeo. This also includes forced commentary by Buchanan.

"Silent Shakespeare" 2004 compilation (with Play All) (with optional commentary by Judith Buchanan) (87:49)
- "King John" (1899) (1:44)
- "The Tempest" (1908) (12:06)
- "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1909) (11:32)
- "Re Lear" (1910) (16:17)
- "Twelfth Night" (1910) (12:32)
- "The Merchant of Venice" (1910) (9:25)
- "Richard III" (1911) (23:01)
“Silent Shakespeare” was a compilation of 7 silent films, compiled by the BFI in the late 1990s. The commentary tracks were recorded in 2004 and Buchanan is expectedly very knowledgeable about the subjects of Shakespeare and silent film. They are well written and thought out, containing a vast amount of information including the backgrounds of the film productions, cast and crew, including a lot of information on actress Florence Turner on "Twelfth Night".

DVD9 | PAL 4:3 | 01:00:33 | 7.91 Gb + 3% rec
Language: English intertitles
Subtitles: none

BD50 | 1080p AVC | 01:03:04 | 44.5 Gb + 3% rec
Language: English intertitles
Subtitles: none

Related posts:

  1. In Search of Shakespeare (2004) 2 x DVD
  2. La corrispondenza / Correspondence (2016) DVD9 and Blu-Ray
  3. Toni Erdmann (2016) Blu-Ray
  4. Un film comme les autres / A Film Like Any Other (1968) Blu-Ray
  5. El olivo / The Olive Tree (2016) DVD9, Blu-Ray