Hamlet: Johnston Forbes-Robertson

R: Hay Plumb. B: Wlliam Shakespeare (play). K: Geoffrey Faithfull. D: Walter Ringham, Johnston Forbes-Robertson, S.A. Cookson, J.H. Barnes, Alex Scott-Gatty, Percy Rhodes, Gertrude Elliot, Adeline Bourne, Grendon Bentley, Montague Rutherford, E.A. Ross. P: Hepworth. UK 1913
Playgroup: The Drury Lane Company
Print: BFI National Archive

“In a 1913 interview, Cecil M. Hepworth, the producer, said that this Hamlet was  ‘the most notable event up to the present in the history of British cinema.’ Even allowing for PR-hype, which even then was escalating into a major industry, the film deserves a niche in history as a unique record of the performance of a major 19th-century Shakespearean actor, Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson. Sir Johnston’s electrifying portrayal of Hamlet, along with the Frederic B. Warde King Lear, provides a time capsule for viewing the acting techniques of eminent Victorians. Moreover, since Forbes-Robertson and his colleagues were actually speaking the lines as they declaimed them on the stage of London’s famous Drury Lane theatre, those familiar with the text can follow the play almost word for word. To appreciate this film, you need to know not less but more about Shakespeare’s play. No danger whatsoever exists, as seems to have been the case with the Barker silent Hamlet, that an audience of mutes might decode vile oaths from the actors’ lip movements. (Interview with C. Hepworth: Bioscope 24 July 1913: 275)”
Internet Shakespeare Editions

Hay Plumb‘s Hamlet (1913) made for the Cecil Hepworth company, marks a definite step forward for British Shakespeare films in that it attempts not only to present an entire play but also has cinematic ambitions over and above just pointing the camera at a reconstituted stage production, the method adopted by most of its predecessors. Sourced from a 1913 Drury Lane stage production, it was partly shot on location in Dorset, with interiors created in Hepworth’s Walton-on-Thames studio. (…)
As with virtually all other British Shakespeare silents (with the exception of Percy Stow’s admirably lucid The Tempest of 1908), there is little context-setting or indeed much indication of who is actually speaking when the intertitles appear on screen. These are somewhat sketchy, glossing over many key themes of the play and virtually demanding at least some degree of prior familiarity from the audience. (…)

That aside, it’s a competent production, helped by Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson’s charismatic performance in the title role (he was pushing sixty at the time, but he looks a fair bit younger) – his facial expressions and lively body language help overcome the limitation of the lack of a soundtrack, though this is still keenly felt as there is little overall attempt at reinventing the play for the cinema.
That said, although still fairly primitive – most scenes are still presented as single-shot tableaux – Hamlet does at least make some use of the cinema’s grammar. The camera occasionally moves, several scenes are shot on location, the ghost is conveyed through double exposure and there’s even a brief instance of cross-cutting, as Ophelia’s corpse is discovered while Laertes talks to Claudius.”
Michael Brooke
BFI Screenonline

609 Johnston Forbes-Robertson

“Johnston Forbes-Robertson (1853-1937) was an English actor and theatrical impresario that George Bernard Shaw and other critics considered to be the finest Hamlet (1913) of his generation. Forbes-Robertson had trained to be an artist and was not overly fond of acting, but he took to the boards to make a living. He did his apprenticeship with Samuel Phelps‘ company and made his theatrical debut in 1874. He played the second lead in the company of Henry Irving, indisputably the greatest actor of his generation and the first actor to be knighted. Forbes-Robertson did not play Hamlet until he was 44 years old, but excelled at it. He was famed for his magnificent voice. Other Shakespearean roles he was hailed for were Leontes in ‘The Winter’s Tale’, Othello and Romeo.”
Jon C. Hopwood

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