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.