In the ten-minute intro to Play On! Shakespeare in Silent Film, we’re told that between 1899 and 1927 roughly 250-300 silent films were produced based on William Shakespeare’s plays. Why so many wordless productions for history’s greatest man of words? Yet the value of these early silents is delivering another perspective on the plays to discover. Marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, the BFI can naturally only include a certain amount of the films on one DVD, and even then they wisely don’t leave viewers to guess at the films’ significance by themselves.
The collected works here are edited together as a five-part, sixty-minute main feature which guides us through the overarching themes and qualities the films demonstrate. This also gently sidesteps the issue that several of the films featured now exist only in fragmented form. So we get clips as varied as the very earliest, an ostentatious performance of King John dying in his bed, to a filmed clip from a Romeo and Juliet production which stars John Gielgud in technically his first film role. The first two parts are the most important: artifice and spectacle. As understandable as it is to watch most of the shorts take place on charismatic sets or be generally theatrically staged, the occasions where film truly exploits its unique qualities provide the thrills in this set. Vitagraph’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream translates the transformations, disappearances and Pluck flying through beautifully simple cutting and location shooting.
The dream-visions in Julius Caesar and Richard III, the stencil-coloured The Merchant of Venice (shot in Venice) and ambitious effects of The Tempest, all make their subjects dramatically vivid. This long neglected period might even have new relevance, as films abbreviated by technological limitations, in our present when we abbreviate by choice. You can watch the unedited shorts on this set, as per an earlier release with optional commentaries by Judith Buchanan, but the BFI’s presentation gives the internationally spread films greater accessibility. The Shakespeare Globe’s composers and musicians have produced new music for the feature (also elaborated on in a ten-minute supplement), which defies typical silent film accompaniment. It reminds us once more of Shakespeare’s universality, which these films thrive on despite their want of words. They’re yet more distinctive and valid interpretations of the Bard’s endless relevance, not distant artefacts.
Jordan Adcock | @jordanreview