Mesmerising magic from the days of silent film

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The Independent Online

My wife worked as a theatre director and drama teacher for a long time, so when we go to the theatre together she and I are often coming at it from different angles. She knows what is what. I only know what I like. About 20 years ago, when we first met, we went to some production upstairs at the Royal Court which I found hilarious. She, I noticed, was not rocking with laughter. I asked why

My wife worked as a theatre director and drama teacher for a long time, so when we go to the theatre together she and I are often coming at it from different angles. She knows what is what. I only know what I like. About 20 years ago, when we first met, we went to some production upstairs at the Royal Court which I found hilarious. She, I noticed, was not rocking with laughter. I asked why

"Oh, it's all right, I suppose. But there's nothing there I haven't seen in any second-year drama course production."

I have never dared laugh in her presence since then. No, that's not true. I have gone on chortling ever since. But it gave me pause, and now, when I see my wife laughing a lot in the theatre, I know there's something special going on.

For instance, she has always been a fan of a group called Forkbeard Fantasy, and took me to see one of their shows at the Bath Festival many years ago. The two mainstays of Forkbeard Fantasy, brothers Chris and Tim Britton, are fascinated by the use of film on stage, and there is one moment from that old show that sticks with me even now.

There was a TV set on stage, on a stand about the height of a man. One of the actors, standing to one side of the TV, was talking to the audience. While talking, he passed to the other side of the stage, walking behind the TV set, and as he went out of view behind the TV set he appeared on the screen, walking and talking, and then vanished from the screen as he reappeared in real life.

A simple trick. You plan the moment by filming yourself walking across. You synchronise your movements on stage, and hey presto. Easy. But someone had to think of it and do it... Mark you, you can't ask an audience to pay good money just to see a man walk behind a TV set, so they have had to stretch the concept out into full-length stage shows, most of which I have seen over the years. The Barbers of Surreal was one. The Fall of the House of Usherettes, which delved into cinema history, was another. But the show I saw last week (in a packed Bath Theatre Royal) was by far the best, and I felt that their fascination with the overlap between film and theatre had finally come of age in a mesmerising, melodramatic, manically funny production called Shooting Shakespeare.

This piece was commissioned by the Bath Shakespeare Festival who, enterprisingly, thought that Forkbeard might provide a fresh angle on Shakespeare. They certainly did. The Britton brothers went back to the early days of film, when people were trying to put Shakespeare on the silent screen, and devised a wonderful story whereby the inventor of a new filming process got involved with the grandees of the Edwardian stage. The actors knew this new-fangled invention threatened them, so they had to get involved. But no one knew how to film Shakespeare, especially silently.

The sight of august actors having to bend their will to camera angles ("Stand there? But I never stand there for this scene!") was funny enough, but when you had actors going through backcloths on which a film was projecting and then immediately reappearing in the film with the other actors and a thousand other illusions, you realise you are in the middle of magic.

There were countless other ideas - the effect of film on the shadowgraph industry, the cruelty of film in close-up on a grand dame, a murder plot, deadly theatre rivalry - and the denouement was as good as anything that had come before, but all I need tell you is that my wife (and 16-year-old son) thought it was absolutely wonderful.

Why am I telling you all this? Because sometimes you have a duty to tell people not to miss something, especially when it's out of London. It's on at Salford this week and Brighton next week. After that it goes into hibernation, before a promised autumn tour. I hope and pray they do have an autumn tour. I very much want London to see it. Well, never mind about London - I can't wait to see it again myself.

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