Posted by: SteveR
Cast: Johnston Forbes-Robertson (Hamlet)
Credits: Edited by SteveR. Music: The Fall, ‘There’s a Ghost in My House’
Shakespeare films cut to pop music are legion on YouTube, so one looks for something with a little more imagination than the usual matching of heartfelt scenes to maudlin ballads. This example is not all that adroitly constructed, but its bizarre juxtaposition of classical actor in silent Shakespeare with the Fall catches the attention.
The actor is Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, one of the greats of the English stage of his time, who at the end of his career chose to have his Drury Lane Company’s production of Hamlet immortalised by the cinematograph. Directed in 1913 by Hay Plumb for the Hepworth Manufacturing Company, and filmed at Walton-on-Thames studios and on location at Lulworth Cove (seen here), the feature length film – an hour-and-a-half long – sought to capture in amber a famous theatrical performance. It did that to a degree, with Forbes-Robertson showing sufficient signs of greatness in his sensitive reading of the part, for all that he was sixty at the time of filming. But film is never a simple reflection of reality. Hepworth’s Hamlet captured a moment of change, in which the plausibility of the theatre was challenged by the credibility of the screen. Much of this filmed Hamlet was absurd – illogical as narrative, creaking as performance – exposed by the camera that was supposedly mere servant to the greater art of theatre. Yet Forbes-Robertson transcends this – he gives a film performance, alert to the particular needs of the camera (if one makes allowance for some histrionics and the limited camera technique). We see what he is thinking, and believe it to be true, which is the key to cinema. It is a performance that has enough about it that is timeless, which can therefore bear screening today, and trial by mashup: though the few scenes here do not show the theatrical knight to his best advantage.
The music is post-punk band The Fall’s 1987 version of Holland, Dozier and Holland’s “There’s a Ghost in My House”, originally recorded by R. Dean Taylor in 1967. It’s a characteristic rendition of a catchy original, with Mark E. Smith’s flat, deadpan delivery offset by the punchy musical accompaniment. It is used here as jokey counterpoint to the creaky ghost scenes from the 1913 Hamlet. But what a marvellous cultural crossroads is revealed. An actor born in 1853, who achieved greatness in the late-Victorian theatre, was filmed in 1913 and preserved thereafter, married to music by the composers of so many 60s pop hits, specifically a song from 1967, reimagined in 1987, then mashed-up together in a video in 2008. The breadth of reference in a two-minute video is huge, and all in the service of a play from 1600. Art is eternal, so long as we are able to replay it.