I love early cinema in all its wild and strange glory, but there is a special place in my heart for Shakespeare adaptations, especially those earliest examples from the 1900s and 1910s. The British Film Institute produced a video, many moons back, called Silent Shakespeare, featuring wonderful examples of films adapted from Shakespeare’s plays from around the world, dated between 1899 and 1911, with gorgeous scores by Laura Rossi. I loved it. The VHS tape was subsequently rereleased on DVD and is still available from the BFI shop, priced £19.99.
Now there is another way to watch these truly gorgeous films – they are streaming on the Globe Player, an online service from the people who run Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank in London – just a few yards away from the venue formerly known as the National Film Theatre, but several centuries away in spirit. You can rent the bundle of seven films for £5.99 or buy it outright for £9.99. Here’s the link.
The films in the Silent Shakespeare set are:
- King John (GB 1899 2 min) the first Shakespeare film ever made, released both as a film in variety theatres and as a peepshow Mutoscope on the same day as Tree’s production of the play opened at the Her Majesty’s Theatre, London.
- The Tempest (GB 1908 12 min)
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream (USA 1909 12 min)
- King Lear/Re Lear (Italy 1910 16 min)
- Twelfth Night (USA 1910 12 min)
- The Merchant of Venice/Il Mercante di Venezia (Italy 1910 10 min)
- Richard III (GB 1911 23 min) a condensed version of one of the Stratford productions mounted by the F.R. Benson Company.
The glimpse of Herbert Beerbohm-Tree as King John is really something, and the hand-stencilled colours of Re Lear are sumptuous, but I must confess I do have a favourite: the charming, ingenious version of The Tempest, directed by Percy Stow for the Clarendon Company in 1908. It’s just sublime – and Michael Brooke calls it “comfortably the most visually imaginative and cinematically adventurous silent British Shakespeare film”, so I am in good company. Try another of my favourites, the 1911 Richard III on for size.
Frank Benson had been playing Richard III for decades at this point, and his ease in the role really shows, especially during these haunting scenes from Bosworth field.