November 27, 2013, by Peter Kirwan
Richard III (Silents Now) @ York Theatre Royal
Regular readers may be interested to know that I manage the Twitter hashtag #shaxfilm, an open online extension of my third year specialist module on Screen Shakespeares. The first film we study on this module is Frank Benson’s 1911 Richard III, filmed at the (then) Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon with a fixed camera, preserving Benson’s highly gestural and entertaining stage performance in a derided film that nonetheless is full of fascinating readings and moments. It’s a film that, when I teach it, perfectly captures the otherness of silent cinema, as students attempt to reconcile the lack of spoken word and the fragmented, hyper-fast series of scenes that cover the whole play and more in 25 minutes.
Judith Buchanan’s major project ‘Silents Now‘ (which seems to me to demand an exclamation mark, ‘Silents Now!’) at the University of York is experimenting with ways of bridging the interpretative and experiential gap between silent cinema and modern audiences, and in conjunction with York’s current production of Richard III, staged a fabulously daring event – a screening of Benson’s film in the theatre’s main auditorium, against the set of Richard III, with live pianist and actors performing a specially scripted text to accompany the film. While this in some ways does a disservice to the form by presuming the difficulty of the film (which I suspect is not quite as unintelligible as some suggest), it also tears Benson out of the archive and once more into the living, flexible environment of theatre in which the performance originated.
Standing in the dress circle, above and behind the audience in the stalls, the actors were in essence invisible, rendered spectators by their positioning, themselves watching the film as they interpreted it. The combination of disembodied voices and fixed bodies on the screen made for a theoretically complex performance environment, the contemporary voices haunting the film’s mise-en-scene as much as the black and white forms of dead actors haunted the space of the Theatre Royal. This led a particular splendour to the scene of the ghosts, with Benson’s tormented king reacting not only to the translucent apparitions but also to the whispers coming from an otherwise silent auditorium.
The obvious instant gain was the clarification of the detail in busy scenes. Buchanan’s script borrowed liberally from two Shakespeare plays and Cibber’s adaptation, as well as rewriting or writing new dialogue for designed to clarify moments of Benson’s own creation. Amid the busy crowd scenes, it was now easier to discern Queen Margaret’s initial banishment, Richard’s commissioning of the monk who frames Clarence, Richmond’s commissioning of the final scene’s standard-bearer, and the relatively extensive presence of Buckingham and Hastings.
The cast, with relatively little preparation time, nailed it with a crisp, hysterical and expertly choreographed delivery that kept near-perfect time with the film, despite some complex overlapping, communal dialogue and the need to match physical markers in the film. Steven Elder’s Richard captured the barked (and occasionally sustained evil) laughter of Benson’s performance, turning on a dime from sobbing to mocking as soon as his victims’ backs were turned. This fast-talking Richard was a thinker, a conniving and controlling Machiavel who drew out his words to great effect, as when slowly puppeteering Anne during the wooing scene. Buckingham had a similar vocal delivery, emphasising the film’s presentation of him as a second Richard, the only other character privileged with the conclusion of scenes and commentary on prior action.
With John Sweeney’s sensitive piano score accompanying the scenes, the aural atmosphere was one of rollicking and triumphant action, driving the fast-moving play, and the actors’ response to this was often extremely humorous. Courtiers mumbled in a Monty Python set of disgruntled noises; dramatic deaths (especially Murray Carrington’s effeminate Clarence) were accompanied by suitably pathetic moans; and soldiers roared and clashed swords noisily. Significantly, the obvious moment where the film was allowed to be more or less silent was those most laden with pathos: the quiet removal of the princes’ bodies, the scene added to Benson’s production specifically for the film, and thus designed without dialogue in mind.
Yet of course, any script entails choices, and the imposition of words wasn’t without its losses. In being directed to pay attention to one aspect of the frame (eg the voicing of Richard’s meeting with the monk), I found myself led to look away from the emergence of King Edward and the princes on the right of the frame. Amid the noisy roar of battle in the final scene, the individual drama of the fallen standard bearer was less prominent than in a wordless version where his destabilising spatial presence disrupts and draws attention away from the climactic duel. Adding words to a silent film introduces a process of focalisation that suggests, if not going so far as to demand, that we pay attention to one of the many things happening on the screen, and in doing so diminishes the small amount of choice for an audience.
The introduction of words also detracts from the words already used by the film in the captions. Interestingly, Buchanan’s script sometimes did but sometimes did not use the words displayed on screen at the start of each scene, and this raises fascinating questions about the place of caption cards – if these have been chosen (and of course, are one of the few purely cinematic aspects of the film), then what does avoiding or distracting from them do? In piecing out the script, does the resonance of the chosen quotations lose its persistence? Similarly, the choice to continue the vocal and musical performance beyond the premature ending of the film raises questions. Benson’s film cuts to black as Richard falls to the ground, but here the actors’ voices continued to give the famous ‘my horse…’ line, followed by the announcement of the Tudor dynasty that closes the play. Now unrestrained by the images, the script became much fuller. The actors slowed down, allowing lengthy pauses, and the final speech was delivered at much more length than any other. This stylistic shift, performed as the audience sat watching a blank screen, broke decisively from the model established during the screening, and I couldn’t help but wonder – is the implication that we watch a silent film but continue to wait for, to long for, the unattenuated speech, the luxurious and measured delivery of Shakespearean verse? I hope not, but in some ways I would have much preferred an ending that maintained the rattling pace and brisk clip of dialogue that had characterised the film thus far.
As someone in the Q&A observed, the audience were largely neither sobbing nor traumatised by the tragedy, but had largely been in stitches throughout. This was, I suspect, entirely appropriate to the film. Benson’s performance is joyous to watch and full of comic reversals. His lugging of Henry VI’s body over his shoulders surely can be nothing other than a moment of slapstick physical comedy, and even his puppeteering of Anne, which I find quite chilling, clearly has a comic edge to it as he revels in his virtual control of the widow. Given the speed of dialogue and the need to resolve sequences in a matter of seconds, the delivery of the actors accentuated the comedy, without ever tipping over into open mockery, which is the uncritical danger and difficult to avoid. The laughter stemmed, I suspect, largely from the exaggerated gestural acting of the early twentieth century which remains somewhat alien in reproduction, but the expert comic timing of the cast as they hit their beats and matched the sighs and laughs of the screen actors added immense enjoyment to the evening.
Events such as this are invaluable in raising the profile of neglected artworks and in experimenting with theories and modes of audience reception. While it was by it’s very nature a compromised set-up, it was productively so, explicating plot for the newcomer and drawing attention to nuance even for those who have taught this film to death. The next stage of the project surely needs to be to theorise the impact of reception in this manner and consider: is this the beginning of a process that inducts contemporary audiences into silent cinema with an aid designed to be ultimately removed; or is it the beginning of a process that inducts silent images into contemporary performance styles and appropriates the early performance styles according to modern concerns? The purist critic of silent cinema may balk at the idea that silent film needs ‘help’ to reach a mass audience; but equally, I doubt this film has captivated so large and enthusiastic an audience since its original screenings. Follow Silents Now(!) for updates, but one can only hope that future events are so intricately and entertainingly conceived.
Thanks for the review, Pete. One finnicky note re something that bothered me most at the start and end of the performance (i.e. before and after the film was in full swing). Was it a piano or an electric keyboard being used? Does it matter, seeing as the production was aiming for an updated experience of silent film rather than an ‘authentic’, ‘original practice’ one…? Probably not, just down to practicalities and personal preference.
Electric piano, I think. But you might argue that this more accurately reflects the sound (almost honky-tonk) of the kinds of piano used in these early performances. I defer to Judith…..
Thanks for the detail of your attention to this pioneering performance project: it was great you could be there on Wednesday and I’m glad you found it a stimulating initiative. It has been a teasing, stimulating, exhausting, thought-provoking and inspiring project to work on.
Scripting and voicing the film has had the most obvious effect of tuning us in more attentively to the extraordinary detail of F.R.Benson’s vigorous and genuinely entertaining 1910 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre production of Richard III. Audience feedback suggests this has had the pleasing effect of bringing the film to a wider audience that might have been supposed could possibly otherwise derive real enjoyment from it, and this has been genuinely pleasing.
Unsurprisingly, however, this project has also proved the spur to some wider thinking about the implications of this sort of interventionist performance. Ideas of what a performance is, what an actor is, how the energies of performance and reception circulate in and around a performance space, what the relationship of body to voice are and can be, and what bodily presence means and achieves, have therefore been very present throughout the rehearsal and performance processes.
Perhaps I might engage with some of the points you make:
PK: ‘While this in some ways does a disservice to the form…’
JB response: Given my keen and active interest, as both a scholar and fan, in doing (I hope) well-informed service to ‘the form’ (ie cinema of the pre-sound era), I’m definitely eager to speak back to this particular suggestion! There is definitely nothing in this particular project that should be taken as in any way implying that silent cinema *as a form* needs this. That is not the intention and should not be assumed from this specific performance screening. I study, teach and exhibit silent cinema from across the whole era, from different national industries and on many different subjects (Shakespearean and well beyond) and of course wouldn’t presume to interfere on the majority of those films which know their own communicative project and execute it beautifully in their own idiom that can catch audiences in a lovely range of ways. For those films, it would be a violation, and fully de trop, to try and collaborate with onscreen performances, or open up the frame in a more inclusive way. These films should be exhibited and enjoyed by broad audiences on their own terms (although always with additional music of course).
However, there was, as you will know, a lively trade in live lecturers and other forms of off-screen vocal mediation between screen and audience (including through the use of actors hidden behind the screen) for a period across the film industry’s transitional years. Films were even made on the understanding that explanatory supplementary commentary or voicing could be made available if the film’s sense was in any way obscure. The Benson film was made in the era in which that was a regular part of the exhibition conventions. The addition of a live lecturer was particularly recommended for Shakespeare films in fact. (I can send you reading matter on this if of interest, including a paper I wrote about the practice of live lecturers in exactly this period: or it’s available in The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain which came out last year if you have access to that.) In the light of contemporary practices in the transitional era, I therefore offer my own, sometimes slightly zany but also, I hope, considered performance experiments as in step with a historical current, and emerging from a similar impulse that motivated the hiring of lecturers and actors at the time. These present-day performance experiments do not exactly replicate those, but they do emerge from a similar place of believing the film could alive in a new and more vigorous way with some live mediating presence interacting with it. And this impulse, I contend, has plenty of historical precedent behind it.
(For reference, I would have mentioned the historical precedents for this in my mini-introduction to the screening on Wednesday had not we been so tightly up against it for time to get out of the theatre for the stage production’s fight warm-up. We were very pressed for time!)
PK: ‘I suspect [the film] is not quite as unintelligible as some suggest…’
JB response: In response to this, I suppose I’d be interested in asking what sorts of audience you have tried it on in order to feel more chipper about its general intelligibility than I do? Crucially, have you tried it on public audiences beyond the university? If, that is, you are proposing it as more intelligible for univeristy students with a basic awareness of RIII already, I can happily subscribe to this. But that is, of course, a very narrow and particular sort of audience. If you mean wider and more general audiences, my own experience in showing this film in various arts cinemas and at a variety of other events definitely suggests otherwise: for this wider demographic, therefore, I think my own anxieties about the film’s intelligibility hold good. If you have evidence to the contrary, though, of course I’d be genuinely fascinated to hear about that. Many thanks for letting me know if so.
PK: ‘The purist critic of silent cinema may balk at the idea that silent film needs ‘help’ to reach a mass audience;’
JB response: I’m not sure what/who you mean by the purist critic of silent cinema – although a bit of me suspects I might be one of those myself! Of course as soon as you exhibit a ‘silent’ film with live music of any sort (unless taken from a score from the original moment and using the same instrumentation as was then available), you are offering interventionist ‘help’ for it to reach a mass audience. Nobody would seriously think of exhibiting a silent film silently – that’s a very eerie experience. So even in its most basic and unfancy exhibition expressions, it is a form that always already craves supplementation. Moreover, I would contend that my modern form of vocal supplementation for the few films for which I have tried this, works in response to, and in loose alignment with, contemporary vocal practices from the first moment of exhibition of these films (see no. 1 above!).
PK: ‘Standing in the dress circle, above and behind the audience in the stalls, the actors were in essence invisible, rendered spectators by their positioning, themselves watching the film as they interpreted it. The combination of disembodied voices and fixed bodies on the screen made for a theoretically complex performance environment, the contemporary voices haunting the film’s mise-en-scene as much as the black and white forms of dead actors haunted the space of the Theatre Royal.’
JB response: Yes I fully agree with this. For background information: material contingency determined where actors were for this event. To achieve the astonishing level of synchronicity they were able to nail for this performance, they needed a very good eye-line match to screen. For this they needed to be raised in order to be on a level with the height of the screen. Given the number of seats sold in the stalls (225), it transpired that there was nowhere in the stalls where we could position the actors in visible space where their presence would not then have impeded the sight-lines of the audience. Although the impression of dis-embodiment their placement in the dress circle then created had its own interest as an effect with and of the film, personally, had this proved possible, I would have much preferred to have had the actors visible so that the vigour and precision and investment, both emotional and physical, of the contemporary cast could have formed an interesting part of the visual field – and the triangulation of performance energies across screen performances, live performances and audience could then have been more consciously appreciable by all.
PK: ‘I would have much preferred an ending that maintained the rattling pace and brisk clip of dialogue that had characterised the film thus far.’
JB response: I completely see the point about consistency of performance register across the gap where the film itself runs out, but I can only report that from workshopping the options a little with the cast, the rattling pace proved very odd when then cut loose from the images which had previously been acting as its engine and justification. What had been consciously funny when working in engagement with Benson et al then just became faintly mad. I therefore instead made the decision to render the break in performance convention very obvious through the decisive change of pace and through temporarily cutting the music, so that the final moments of dynastic settlement acted as a self-conscious coda playing to different conventions, in memory of, but self-evidently now without, Benson. It very deliberately, therefore, brought the playing conventions more obviously into the present moment, and this was a fully conscious move. It was also, as it played out, a genuine pleasure to allow the wonderful Steve Elder (who played Richard) and Andy Dunn (Richmond) and Mark Holgate (Derby) a brief moment in which the tyrannical process of actorly surrender to the pace of a set of prior performances could briefly drop away and they could be allowed to breathe and deliver the last few lines free of the freneticism that had necessarily acted as the intoxicating but unremitting driver of everything prior to that point.
PK: ‘Interestingly, Buchanan’s script sometimes did but sometimes did not use the words displayed on screen at the start of each scene, and this raises fascinating questions about the place of caption cards – if these have been chosen (and of course, are one of the few purely cinematic aspects of the film), then what does avoiding or distracting from them do? In piecing out the script, does the resonance of the chosen quotations lose its persistence?’
JB response: This is an interesting point and one I pondered myself at some length in producing the script. The lines chosen for the film’s intertitles always refer to the relevant scene but are not always represented in the particular sections of truncated action then dramatised in the compressed version of the production that was played for the camera. So rather than trying to shoe-horn all the intertitle lines into my script, even in defiance of their actual fit to the action, I instead allowed the played action to determine the choice of words. Sometimes this intersected perfectly with the lines used as prefatory intertitle, sometimes partially so, sometimes not. For example, in the wooing of Lady Anne scene, the prefatory intertitle reads:
“Was ever woman in this humour woo’d? / Was ever woman in this humour won? / I’ll have her; but I will not keep her long.”
I had this written into the script as the intertitle (as I did with all the intertitles in fact) so that it could act as the spur to and tonal determinant of our rehearsal work on that scene. But there is not time in Gloucester’s self-congratulatory gleeful end to that scene to include all three lines; so I had to make a choice about which of them seemed to be the best organic fit with how Benson’s Gloucester looks and what he does in that performance moment. The result was we got the first two of those lines in the end. And similar processes of deliberation, selection and rejection informed the whole script of course. Every line of the script we used had a history of pencil chewing behind it as I considered the options, and weighed the advantages and losses in relation to each. Like any performance choice, therefore, it involved acts of deliberate eschewing as well as acts of conscious selection. Each moment of the composite onscreen/offscreen performance therefore became itself partly by not being something else. And every line of the script certainly lives out that principle with considerable emphasis (as my groaningly large script discard file can cheerfully attest!).
PK: ‘Silents Now‘ (which seems to me to demand an exclamation mark, ‘Silents Now!’)
JB response: I understand the potential draw in this direction, but it would still not be my choice (!!!!).
Fun to engage on the detail of this with you. Thanks again for thinking it reflecting on it with such energy and attention. I’ll keep you posted on future plans!
All very best
Professor Judith Buchanan
University of York
Thanks for the comments Judith, and pleased to help keep the conversation going around this! The background information is very helpful. Of course, every event of this nature involves compromise – that’s absolutely the point, and my questions here, I hope, don’t imply that compromise is a negative. Rather, I’m interested in the extent to which the decisions taken to make it ‘work’ in this setting operate to accentuate or compensate for aspects of the film itself.
In response to question 2, I am talking about university audiences. My suspicion that it’s more comprehensible than some give it credit for (and I’m talking about extreme responses that suggest the film makes no sense whatsoever) doesn’t mean that I think anyone with no prior knowledge of Shakespeare could watch the film and follow it, or that a modern audience doesn’t need any assistance. Equally, I’m not convinced that adding vocals to the film grants it universal accessibility – for me, the film’s real difficulties for a modern audience lie in its pace and cuts rather than its silence, and of course those difficulties remain. This is why I found the extended ending fascinating – the impulse of the actors and team to slow it down and allow breathing space was, I think, very revealing about where the barriers to interpretation lie beyond the lack of spoken dialogue. On a personal note, I saw the film ten years ago as an undergraduate student before reading the play or seeing any other version, and while I can’t claim I understood every nuance, I think the intertitles render plot reasonably clear. But that’s where I think the importance of Silents Now(!) lies, in trialling different techniques with different audiences.
In relation to 1 and 3, I absolutely agree, and I present the film myself to my students with a frame of commentary as an illustration of the same historical-practices principle. And of course I’m not referring to the imposition of music! It’s very specifically the imposition of a full-dialogue script that I’m talking about here in relation to the form itself – as opposed to e.g. third-person commentary, partial dialogue (an extension of intertitles) or scene summaries. While there are precedents for full scripts being performed alongside images in silent cinema (and I defer to your knowledge on this!), it strikes me as the most interventionist approach of a range of textual supplements, and the one that relies least on the images to communicate meaning. I don’t think it’s the wrong approach by any means, and especially for particular scenes (the ghosts especially) it’s probably the best option, but it’s an ongoing conversation not only in relation to silent cinema but also to foreign-language theatrical performance in the UK (cf the Globe to Globe Festival which used scene summaries instead of line-by-line translations).
Many thanks for this Peter – both for the detail of your attention to some of the questions this raises and for your considered reflections upon these too. I’ve found this interesting.
I suppose for this particular production, for what it’s worth, we were as interested in exploring whether it was possible to create something new through the interaction between then and now, offscreen and onscreen, as we were in simply resurrecting or interpreting something old (interesting though that also is). We wanted a ‘something else’ to emerge from the crackle of the interaction between the long gone and the very present, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre of 1910 and the York Theatre Royal of 2013, the Benson company and our own. So although a will to recuperate was certainly part of the initial spring for the performance experiment, that will was never purely about getting something back: it was always interested in the opportunity of creating something new through that act of partial recuperation. At the moments in which the transtemporal and transmedial collaboration particularly ‘caught’, it then, in Steve’s term, became an act of alchemy – something richer and stranger emerging from the encounter than could be accounted for by the sum of its component elements.
I’ll look forward to further opportunities to discuss this, and other questions of Shakespearean performance with you, at some point. It would be illuminating to be able to bash these out, and tease them into shape, at greater length in an appropriate forum if the opportunity presented itself.
All v. best,
PS. As discussed in a separate thread, I’ll be glad to stick the spare programmes in the post to you tomorrow, just in case of any potential use for your students at any point.