Tights, camera, action

People have been filming Shakespeare since 1899, and a new work celebrates these early cinematic forays
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In September 1899, down by the Thames Embankment, the great Shakespearean actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree filmed a few short, silent scenes of Shakespeare's King John. Only a minute-long fragment remains, in which Tree dies a rather painful-looking death. Yet the film was the first ever instance of Shakespeare on celluloid, and the first flutter in what would prove to be an epic and enduring love affair between cinema and the works of Shakespeare.

In September 1899, down by the Thames Embankment, the great Shakespearean actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree filmed a few short, silent scenes of Shakespeare's King John. Only a minute-long fragment remains, in which Tree dies a rather painful-looking death. Yet the film was the first ever instance of Shakespeare on celluloid, and the first flutter in what would prove to be an epic and enduring love affair between cinema and the works of Shakespeare.

The BFI has released a video containing seven of the best preserved of these earliest examples, including a 30-minute film of Richard III from 1911. Watched simply for their own sake, these brief, flickering shorts exert an awkward fascination: mute, monochrome relics from a vastly technologically inferior, bygone age. They also embody a seeming paradox: Shakespeare performed in silence, without the poetry - surely a contradiction in terms.

Yet, as a new production from Forkbeard Fantasy aims to show, these grainy fragments also explicitly embody the fraught and intimate relationship between film and theatre that defined the early days of the cinema industry. Set in 1904, Shooting Shakespeare imagines the stand-off between film and theatre as the old Victorian theatres of the 19th century started to give way to the new movie houses of the 20th. Using footage of these old films from the BFI archive, the production takes as its starting point the shooting of The Tempest - a 10-minute complete film from 1904 that was one of the first to experiment with super-imposed imagery.

For Tim Britton, founder member of Forkbeard, the films are fascinating for many reasons, but particularly because they communicate something of the artists' excitement at this virgin artistic language."Just think of these actors and directors, so heavily steeped in the theatrical realism of the 19th century, suddenly facing this whole new vista of dramatic possibility, and having this new technology at their fingertips."

An equally fascinating thing about these films is their clear debt to theatre. Shooting Shakespeare features a movie mogul stalking Theatreland with an eye to takeover, yet early cinema, defined by its association with the penny arcades, was desperate for some of theatre's respectability. By using theatre actors, costumes and sets, the first movie companies seized a big commercial opportunity in marrying the new language of film with the familiar but high-brow stories of Shakespeare, attracting new middle-class audiences while consolidating their working-class base.

This was particularly true of American film companies such as Vitograph and Thanhouser, who between them produced 16 Shakespeare plays on film between 1908 and 1916. In a 1995 catalogue on the BFI's Silent Shakespeare archive, Olwen Terris points out that the American fascination with all things English was already evident in the early days of cinema. Roberta E Pearson and William Urrichio emphasise that Shakespeare had other advantages: he came with no royalty payments, his stories had already been written, and their melodramatic plots were perfect for the blossoming special-effects industry.

Britton is awed by the speed with which the pioneers grasped their new opportunities: "They testify to the power of non-verbal theatre, but also to the magic of what was to come. The Tempest is particularly resonant: it's still an enchanted isle, only this one is filled with celluloid dreams."

'Shooting Shakespeare' is at the Hackney Empire, London E8 (020-8985 2424) until tomorrow, and is at the Riverside Studios, London W6 (020-8237 1111) from 7 to 12 December

Comments