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.

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