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Play On!Play On!
​Shakespeare Lives in Film
23 July 2016

Silent Shakespeare: Play On!

Of the 1,168 writing credits William Shakespeare receives on IMDB, over 100 are for films made before sound became an integral part of cinema. It seems odd that a writer renowned for the richness and complexity of his dialogue should be employed as source material for a form entirely unsuited at that time to fully engaging with his texts. However, the adaptation of scenes from his plays were hugely popular.

The first play to be adapted, in 1899, was one that is rarely performed today. This version of 'King John', which was written around the same time as 'Romeo and Juliet', 'A Midsummer's Night Dream' and 'The Merchant of Venice', featured the great Victorian stage actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. It was actually used as an advertisement for the stage production he was appearing in. A single image only remains from that film, but countless other silent Shakespeare films have survived, many of which are featured in Play On!, a compendium of excerpts screening on the Market Square.

The British Institute picked scenes from 24 adaptations of Shakespeare's tragedies, comedies and historical plays for the film. They include one of the first screen appearances by legendary Shakespearean actor Sir John Gielgud, in a production of 'Romeo and Juliet'. Though most of the films were shot in studios, there are a few exceptions, most notably a production of 'The Merchant of Venice' that was actually shot in the Italian city. Elsewhere, a storm rages as King Lear goes insane, a magical woods allows for some early visual effects in a production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and the murder of Duncan is presented in a wildly declamatory style in a scene from 'Macbeth'.

The film is accompanied by music composed and performed by the musicians of London's Globe Theatre. Drawn together by theme, these films offer a fascinating portrait of how Shakespeare was presented in the early 20th century.

Ian Haydn Smith

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