A small archive of short films from the British Council's archive have been posted online including two excepts from Shakespeare plays recorded back in the 1940s "in order to enable those who have no opportunity of attending performances of Shakespearean plays in a theatre to see how the various parts are played by leading English actors and actresses".
"Famous Scenes from Shakespeare No. 1" is Julius Caesar - Act III, Scene 2 - The Forum Scene. Felix Aylmer as um, Marcus Brutus and Leo Genn as Marcus Antonius, address a multitude of extras in a piece of high production values, filmed with a certain epic quality despite the obviously small shooting space thanks to some excellent production design from Compton Bennet and spacious direction from Henry Cass.
The accompanying trivia notes that Genn and Cass were previously involved in mid-thirties production of Caesar at the Old Vic, and this short piece retains stage theatricality. It's also filled with the kinds of memorable faces Fellini loved to include in his films, not least of the main actors both of whom are very unlike the kinds of younger performers usually assigned these roles, but both of whom have loads of authority.
"Famous Scenes from Shakespeare No. 2" or Macbeth - Act II, Scene 2, and Act V, Scene 1 - Murder and sleep-walking scenes offer further evidence that these were prestige productions with the casting of Wilfred Lawson (Macbeth), Cathleen Nesbitt (Lady Macbeth) who were the leads in 1944's second biggest film, Fanny By Gaslight. On the evidence, it's a shame they were only given these two short scenes to work with. A feature film would have been magic.
The lighting is moody. Noirish. Lawson and Nesbitt, even with their RP accents are exactly as one might imagine these ancient figures to be. The starkest image is in the sleep-walking scene as Lady M appears silloetted against the archway before slowly stepping forward in the light, her concentration in holding her lantern despite her blank expression telling us everything we need to know about her state of mind.
Twenty years later, the British Council undertook to record the whole of Shakespeare's canon (as it was then) in conjunction with the Marlowe Society at Cambridge University along with professional actors. They were released by Argo records. Here's a review of their Twelfth Night at Gramaphone. They're fairly orthodox stuff, but still well worth listening to if you're interested in theatrical history.
They're also still very accessible. I've bought many of them through ebay and in charity shops, but most of them are also available as downloads through Amazon and iTunes and even more impressively to stream through Spotify. Here is the Twelfth Night production reviewed above featuring Prunella Scales:
Spotify Classical Playlists has prepared a complete playlist, which also includes some other of the service's Shakespearean gems.