Ghosts of Richards past

25th August 2014

Frank Benson in Richard III (detail from framegrab)

To Middleham Castle on Saturday evening for a unique ‘performed screening’ of a 1911 silent film version of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Sited in the glorious Yorkshire dales, the impressive castle, now in the care of English Heritage, is strongly associated with time spent there by the late medieval monarch. The film was Frank Benson’s production from his own staging, in which he stars as the wicked king, and which was shot on the stage of Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The occasion was a presentation by Silents Now, a group led by Professor Judith Buchanan and based at the University of York, which is dedicated to exploring new ways of bringing audiences to films made before the coming of sound. And the ‘performed’ element was the contribution of the incomparable John Sweeney at the piano and a group of actors who contributed the verse, together with vivid sound effects, in perfect synchronicity with the flickering images. Nestled inside the ruined, spotlit keep and huddled with my family against the cold, I found it rather magical and rather marvellous.

To give you first a sense of the film, here is a extract courtesy of the BFI:

The full 22-minute production is one of the treasures on the BFI’s essential DVD collection Silent Shakespeare. Go here for a brief introduction to British Shakespeare silents (with links to information about a number of the key films), while the essential book about the wonders of these productions is Judith Buchanan’s exemplary Shakespeare on Silent Film; An Excellent Dumb Discourse, published by Cambridge University Press.

Frank Benson’s film is a radically compressed adaptation of the play that has been so influential in shaping our sense of King Richard. Most of the highlights feature, including the wooing of Lady Anne (above) and the murder of the princes in the tower (but no ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’), and Benson added one or two supplementary scenes as well. As noted, the film was shot from the stage, with a single camera at an unvarying distance, and so it comes across as a kind of Encore screening of a very early Live from Stratford-upon-Avon broadcast. And this means that the cast are actually speaking Shakespeare’s words, although of course these were not recorded. What Judith Buchanan has done is work out exactly what is being said at each moment and so has reconstructed the script for a live soundtrack.

Earlier this year, this soundtrack was performed for the first time at the Theatre Royal in York, and the two special showings at Middleham this past weekend followed from that. I found the effect of it all entrancing, both immensely entertaining and thought-provoking in so many ways. Inevitably, given that we get the full plot in just over 20 minutes, the action moves extraordinarily rapidly, so we travel a roller-coaster narrative from martial triumph to dastardly plotting to passionate love-making to bitter betrayal to terrible murders to spooky nightmares and on to the fatal clash at the Battle of Bosworth.

Except that, as with so many fragile traces of the silent era, the closing frames of the film are lost, and we were left with a blank screen for an evocative closing with ‘A horse, a horse…’ and the reconciliation of the red rose and the white. The actors, and perhaps especially Dan Ford as Richard, were wonderfully expressive, and it was a presentation masterstroke that we could see them throughout, arrayed around the screen. Much – too much? – of the drama was played for laughs, although Judith Buchanan afterwards defended this as totally in keeping with the comic brio of the flamboyant Benson’s performance. We heard the clash of swords as well, a slapped face and a tender kiss.

The Middleham presentation on Saturday was, like all performance, unique to that moment, and it brought together the hundred-plus witnesses in the manner of the best theatre. Yet this was also cinema, as both artefact and social occasion, and at the same time what was being shown was an early trace of the theatre from a century back. Here crowding around us were Shakespeare’s ghosts, the ghosts of Benson and his company – all of course long dead, and the ghosts of both mythical and real-life Richards, Buckinghams, Tyrells and Lady Annes. ‘Soft!,’ I thought with Richard as I left, ‘I did but dream.’ And looking back, I remain both thrilled and delighted that ‘the remembrance of so fair a dream’ stays with me.

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