Shakespeare on the Silent Screen: Hamlet

To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Barbican is showing a programme of his work on film, which includes many plays from the RSC as well as an early treasure trove of silent films. This film version of Hamlet, dating from 1920, caught my eye: this German version, directed by Svend Gade, stars Swedish actress Asta Nielsen as the title character. The film is accompanied by live music, an original score by Robin Harris featuring Laura Anstee and Aaron May, which added to the atmosphere and helped make the experience a memorable one.

The plot differs somewhat from Shakespeare’s original play: in this version, Hamlet is born a girl, but in order to preserve the stability of the Crown – King Hamlet being feared dying or dead at his daughter’s birth – she is brought up as a boy. This leads to some interesting developments: for instance, Hamlet falls in love with Horatio, while Horatio is in love with Ophelia.

As the film is silent, with only a few scenes of on-screen dialogue, Shakespeare’s text is obviously pushed to the side, but this seems to have offered scope for greater originality in the work. Asta Nielsen was not the first female Hamlet, and she certainly wasn’t the last, but it still seems unusual to see a gender-swapped Hamlet almost a century ago. The film is an engaging one, with Claudius in particular making a strong impression as a full-on villain. Some aspects perhaps don’t survive the test of time: the expression on Horatio’s face as he clasped the dying Hamlet to him, only to realise – his hand on her chest – that she was actually a woman, led to an outburst of laughter from the audience that I presume wasn’t exactly what the director intended. Still, there is plenty to appreciate in this impressive early Shakespeare film.


Hangmen [NT Live]

NT Live – the scheme which streams theatre productions to cinemas around the country and beyond – has been going for several years now, but I had my first experience of it very recently, when I went to see a production of Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen at the Wyndham’s Theatre. The play, which premiered at the Royal Court, subsequently transferred to the West End and after reading several positive reports I decided to give it a try.

The play is set in 1965, just after hanging has been abolished in Britain. This leaves hangmen, such as Harry Wade, out of work, so he finds alternative employment as a landlord in a Manchester pub. Unfortunately his past is about to catch up with him.

Martin McDonagh is the writer of In Bruges, and Hangmen employs much of the same kind of dark humour. At the beginning of the play, a convicted murderer is given the death penalty despite protesting his innocence. Despite the unfortunate subject matter the scene is incredibly funny. “I don’t want to be hung”, claims the unfortunate victim. “Hanged”, corrects one of his guards.

David Morrissey is excellent as the ex-hangman who maintains dignity and professional pride in his former occupation. I really liked Bronwyn James as Shirley, his teenage daughter, and Johnny Flynn was superbly chilling as the mysterious Mooney, who turns up at the pub unexpectedly.

With a plot that twists and turns, continually surprising, this is a hugely entertaining play, but it also has something serious to say about the death penalty – is it a deterrent? Is it infallible? A superb play that is well worth seeing.

The NT Live experience was, for me, a very positive one. I went to the Barbican which has some of the best seats of any cinema I’ve come across. We got to witness theatregoers arriving in the auditorium and had a short introduction to the play. During the performance itself, the camerawork was effective, with a good balance of close-ups and full stage shots, and I was able to enjoy something of the atmosphere of a live performance. I would recommend the NT Live experience if for whatever reason you are unable to see a production at the theatre.

Macbeth (2015)

I don’t normally visit the cinema these days, but I had to make an exception for Justin Kerzel’s new film of Macbeth. Against a beautiful backdrop of scenery, filled with rich colours, the play runs its course in a compelling production, beginning with the burial of the couple’s child: an artistic liberty which lends depth to the Macbeths’ characters and influences Lady Macbeth in particular.

Michael Fassbender is very strong as Macbeth, entirely believable as a successful army leader and compelling as he is steeped deeper and deeper into bloody betrayal. Marion Cotillard is superb as Lady Macbeth, compelling in her wickedness and human and sympathetic in her grief. Her “mad” scene in particular, which sees her return to her former home and deliver her speech quietly, crouching on the floor, seeing the figure of her child playing before her, is touching and sad.

The play has been cut to fit into its two-hour running time, and it flows superbly. I particularly liked the ending of the film, with its insinuation that the Scottish throne itself is cursed and the bloodshed will continue. An excellent addition to the canon of filmed Shakespeare.


Beckett on Screen – Television Pieces

As part of the International Beckett Season I popped along to the Barbican to attend a screening of some of the pieces Samuel Beckett wrote for television. Created specially for this medium, they struck me as being quite static – not a criticism, but an observation – making them more suited to the screen rather than the stage.

Eh Joe stars Jack McGowran, shut in a room while the voice of a woman he once loved (Sian Phillips) affects him deeply. As the camera draws ever closer to the actor’s face, the intensity of his emotions become even more apparent. This short piece was directed by Alan Gibson and was released in 1966.

Directed by Donald McWhinnie and Anthony Page, the 1977 Ghost Trio (named after Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Trio which can be heard in the piece) is similarly haunting, with repetitive movements and a lonely atmosphere.

…but the clouds…, created at the same time, is a meditation on absence featuring Ronald Pickup and Billie Whitelaw, who mouths words from The Tower, a poem by Yeats that inspired the title.

Finally, Beginning to End, directed by Chloe Gibson in 1966, stars Jack McGowran who dramatises various Beckett prose works.

Taken together, the pieces were powerful and thought-provoking, though I think I’d have to think and read about them a fair bit more to really understand them.