Filming Shakespeare With And Without Words In Settings Familiar And Unfamiliar

Kenneth Branagh (whose full-length version of Hamlet was released on DVD recently) characterized playing Hamlet on stage as “…three hours of dialogue and then a sword fight when you’re exhausted.” What, then, of playing Hamlet on film? How about in silent film?

Sarah Bernhardt portrayed the melancholy Dane in a French version from 1900, Le Duel d’Hamlet, and one is tempted to infer that the adaptation focused on the action of the duel simply because film was silent in 1900. That inference would be wrong, however, since Le Duel d’Hamlet was a sound film that shipped to theaters with an accompanying Edison cylinder recording. Take that, Al Jolson.

There were many silent Hamlets, however, like the one produced in Denmark in 1910, now lost, and others that still survive intact or in fragmentary form.

It is not impossible to create a silent Hamlet. As recently as last June, a 90-minute mime and movement version was presented wordlessly at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Sarah Kaufman of The Washington Post wrote of the silent performance that “… the suspicions [and] shadows… blare like sirens though the actors, who convey them only through a glance, a gesture and a particular way of moving across the stage.”

The 1916 silent film Hamlet Up To Date, shot by the Lubin Studio in Florida, was perhaps the first film version to recast the story in a modern setting. The trend cotinues: the Ethan Hawke version from 2000 was set in modern-day New York. A 2000 TV adaptation starring Campbell Scott updated the setting to 19th Century New York (and was shot right here on Long Island).

Given the critical attention these productions garnered, it seems unfathomable that arguably the boldest adaptation, a silent film, shot in upstate New York at a time when most film production companies had long since departed for Hollywood to escape the restrictions of Edison’s Motion Picture Trust… remains largely unknown.

That may change, however, since the lone surviving print has now been painstakingly transferred to video and become available for critical reevaluation. Kerry Decker’s decision to set the story in fifteenth century Greece at first seems counterintuitive, but perfectly suits his Hamlet, John Hopkins. Hopkins’s startling performance as the tragic prince is matched in subtlety and nuance by Alan Chapman’s Claudius. The silent Decker version takes extreme liberties with the story and eschews the violence endemic to nearly all productions, on stage or screen, silent or with sound, taking its cue from Claudius’s reaction to the madness of Ophelia, spoken to Queen Gertrude in Act Four, Scene Five: O, this is the poison of deep grief/ it springs all from her father’s death/ O Gertrude, Gertrude/ When sorrows come, they come not single pies/ but in battalions.

Link to Decker’s silent Hamlet.

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