39 Johnston Forbes-Robertson.



Shakespeare  When this project began over a decade ago, one of the prescribed rules was that only production which utilised Shakespeare's text would be included in the tally of Hamlets with Simba and the like treated separately. That left me slightly reticent to tackle silent productions because of the fine line between production and adaptation most of them straddle. Hay Plumb's 1913 film (which you can watch for yourself here) is different because in presenting a "capture" of the Drury Lane production from the same year, he's presenting the performances just as they appeared on stage and even the most idle of lip-readers can see that they're very much enunciating the text, even if the viewer can't hear any of it.

That's true of many silent Shakespeares but in the majority of examples, the acting and presentation are in service of the intertitles, cutting and out in a more familiar format. In this Hamlet, sections of the text are utilised to introduce a scene which then plays in a recognisable manner, often the point that it's entirely possible, if you're familiar with the play to see which soliloquy is in process, which famous line is being said. With a little research and the aid of a lip-reader, a subtitled version of the film could probably be produced, which would certainly aid those seeing a version of the play for the first time. Otherwise this all probably makes little sense.

As the excellent BFI Screenonline article explains, for large portions of the play, few of the characters are introduced and story points barely explained: "For instance, when he picks up the skull by the graveside, while we are given the opening lines of the speech, we are not told who Yorick is, and Gertrude's relationship with Claudius, Hamlet and the ghost is not disclosed until halfway through the closet scene, and that only in passing." Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wander in at two points, make little impression and are barely acknowledged by Hamlet who is too busy talking to Polonius or the players to notice.

Some of this has to do with the brevity of the screen time, the play's traffic reduced to just under an hour and all of the major scenes are included thanks to some careful structuring. The Battlements seems to be played as a flashback after "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt ..." instead of at the top of the film. Ophelia's "madness" scene and the revelation of her suicide are presented during what looks like the same conversation between Claudius and Laertes, very quickly on. Hamlet being sent to England entirely happens off screen and we only really become aware of it thanks to the letter he sends home advising of his arrival. Fortinbras is gone.

Other choices must have been as a result of screen grammar not quite having reached editing or close-ups with entire scenes filmed in what we'd now call establishing shots or mid-shot mimicking the proscenium arch of the theatre and leaving some scenes continuing on far longer than might be expected. The actors stand on the bottom of shot although some use is made of perspective with characters walking into the set from the back, creating the sense of the actors walking from upstage to downstage. Ophelia's funeral lasts longer than the Ghost's appearances and the Mousetrap running counter to even some directorial choices in some theatrical productions.

Which isn't to say there aren't a few flourish especially amongst to the location filming. The scene shot outside at Lulworth Cove and Hartsbourne Manor provide a definite scale, and it's quite surprising to see Hamlet on a real beach with the tide threatening to drown the production. The shots on the battlements are more static and often look like they're simply being shot on very realistic sets against a well painted backdrop rather than real battlements and some gorgeous scenery. Having the ghost appear in these circumstances through a double exposure is a technical achievement.

Understandably about the only performance to make its mark is from Forbes-Robertson, very gestural and theatrical clearly designed for an auditorium which translates well to silent film.  But there's no denying his age, seeming older than both his parents which can be jarring to modern eyes although not especially peculiar amongst the great tragedians.  There is a recording of him reading the advice to the players which gives some indication of how his voice would have sounded at least, and he's certainly more contemporary in reading than Herbert Beerbohm Tree.

But perhaps of most interest are the deliberate changes to the story. During the Prince's confrontation with Ophelia an inter-title notices, "Hamlet discovers the king behind the curtain" which he does on-screen without Claudius actually revealing himself despite his hand obviously holding onto the fabric. That makes clear the inference sometimes acknowledged in verbal productions that Hamlet know that his foe is there, either through intuition or an accidental noise (as per the Branagh film). Was this in the original stage production or one of the few attempts at adapting that for the silent screen?

Similarly, there's the moment right at the end in which Hamlet dies on the thrown and Horatio enacts a sort of posthumous coronation as a replacement for Fortinbras having been cut. Many actors have voiced the opinion that with all of this experience, Hamlet would be a good king and arguably he is the for his brief moments before death stopping Horatio's suicide and asking his friend to tell his story, making it part of remembered history. Plumb's film in many ways provides the same function. Although we can't hear him, we can at least see one of our great tragedians at the height of his powers.

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