14 February 2015

Cinematic Delights: A Century's old film, finally found. Silent Sherlock Holmes captivates.

As far as we know, time travel is not possible.  How many of would like to go back in time and experience the past, witness a historical event, meet, experience, or see a well-known person?
The Louvre on a wet day in 2015. My previous visit was on a
slightly warmer day in 1991.
Honestly, I would.

The time is 2015, and the place was Paris, France--a city I had not visited to any great length in over 20 years, the last time as a 16 year old. While the city itself didn't feel much different, some of its inhabitants did. I actually found myself understanding the trepidation of tourists visiting the capital.  Even with my knowledge of the language there were times I felt slighted in someway; that I perhaps had used the wrong definite article, failed to make an adjective agree, or that even translating to my friend in explaining what was happening was putting upon the local Parisian.  After one particular incident, as the string of curses that would have rivaled Malcolm Tucker, flowed out of my mouth I think I finally understood what many had been telling me for quite a while.  Now, this thirty-something can see the slight ridiculousness of my 16 year old self as a  tourist with my friends constantly looking for a McDs so that there would be ice in their soda, yet I also think there needs to be a positive response given to a genuine attempt at not being a tourist. And, in the end, despite the attitudinal glitches and walking roughly seven miles around Paris in one day (and realising how close much of the major bits of the city actually were) the raison d'etre of the whole trip made all the frustrations worth it--the viewing of Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette.

Sherlock Holmes and film enthusiast gather outside the cinema
waiting to see the great William Gillette.
I think I may have gotten as close as I ever will get to a world premiere a couple of weeks ago when I was lucky enough to attend the first-ever showing of this film in almost 100 years in Paris. There were no celebrities, no flashing bulbs, but for those in attendance, such as myself, there may as well have been for it was the first time that we, 21st Century Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts, would see one of the first visual adaptations of the consulting detective by the original and, in my humble opinion, one of the greats.

The cinema was modern.  The seats were comfortable.  There was even a number of attendees in deerstalkers.  Signs and gadgets of 2015 were all around, but as soon as the lights dimmed, the picture appeared, and the music began it was 1916.  Sherlock Holmes, starring William Gillette, was on the screen.

The story, written by Gillette and originally shown on stage from 1899, was as captivating and engaging as anything that has come after it (and certainly better than some currently in production on US television). As many who have come after him continue to do, Gillette went back to the source material for his story. Original in the whole concept, he infuses his piece with elements of the original Conan Doyle stories that made me smile and even inwardly cheer to myself when I identified them.  Elements of Charles Augustus Milverton, The Final Problem, A Scandal in Bohemia can all be observed by the movie detective with a Holmesian eye.  With as many nods and references he made to the original stories, Gillette also devised a unique adventure with mystery, villains, damsels in distress, Billy the pageboy, a smidgen of Dr. Watson, a lack of Mrs. Hudson and even a love story; yes, Sherlock Holmes fell in love and I believed it!
A ticket of a lifetime. 

It is clear that by this time William Gillette knows his character like he might know himself. Sherlock Holmes is the type of character that takes a great amount of gravitas and presence; Gillette delivers. Although decidedly not a complete image of Paget's illustrated Holmes, Gillette still carries the physical stature of the great detective with his demeanor, grace, stance, intellect and even the slight playfulness that Holmes possesses.  His Sherlock is undoubtedly different than today's portrayals, but it is this that makes it so refreshing, so unique.  Instead of being the animated and agitated oddity or eccentricity that many of his successors portray, Gillette brings a calm, graceful and quiet humourous force to Holmes in the centre of the unsavory mysteries and adventures he encounters; it reminded me of the wonderful performances of Basil Rathbone.  Just listening to his voice left no doubt in my mind as to why he was acclaimed and applauded in the role.

Though we only see him in small doses, Dr. John H. Watson packs a punch--a more emotional one--in Gillette's Sherlock Holmes.  He does not as much assist Holmes with his adventures than he does with his life; the role of Dr. Watson of the friend and confidante, and yes doctor, is where he stays. Quietly sitting and waiting in 221B or getting on with the practice being a doctor, Watson waits for Holmes to return.  Much of the work of 'sidekick' is handed over to a supplemental character who pretends to be the servant in the grand home of the evil-doers.  William Gillette's Watson is played by Edward Fielding, an American actor who began his career on the London stage and joined the cast of Gillette's Sherlock Holmes in 1915 before playing the good doctor in the 1916 film*.  One noticeable difference in the actors is their physicality: Watson is taller than Holmes!  It was as slight shock as there are few adaptations today (save for the Guy Ritchie movies) that have the detective be shorter than his Boswell.  Nonetheless, it is said that one reason Gillette chose Fielding was because of his height and it works.  I don't think I could have ever accepted a love-struck Holmes had it not been due to the revelation by Watson; he must directly tell Holmes that he is in love as the detective is unable to deduce this himself.  That, for me, is what Watson is for Holmes.  Watson may have been left to one side in the adventure, but he still provided Holmes an important service in the end.
Photo of film poster of Sherlock Holmes

What Sherlock Holmes adaptation would be complete without his most infamous enemy, Professor Moriarty?  Certainly not this one.  The Professor appears later in the story as a resource for the flailing efforts of wrong-doing from the Larabees, the original instigators. French actor Ernest Maupain was charged with the task of bringing the world a first-look at the nemesis of Sherlock Holmes to the big screen.  As with Gillette's Holmes, Maupain's Moriarty is not exactly an image conjured up by the Canon, however, his successor's also don't always fit that bill (many would probably agree that honour goes to Granada's Moriarty), however, much like today much relies on the performance and interpretation of the character and Maupain impressed me.  With the inter-titles acting as his voice, his Moriarty was illustrated through the way he looked.  Noted as a "wizard of make-up", Maupain gives the lanky, frail image of the Canon Professor an overhaul being larger in size and movie-life with the aid of early make-up artistry and a glass-eye effect that was meant to surprise the viewer when he was angry or menacing*.  I have not seen many silent films (the few that I have seen are all Holmes-related), but the language and story told from all silent film actors' face and body language is a skill that only a highest caliber of today's actors' possess.  Maupain's Moriarty is equal parts evil and intellect; a perfect match for Holmes.

The supporting cast, all original characters created by Gillette, each play their roles as enticingly as the stars.  The damsel in distress and Holmes's future love interest, Alice Faulkner, is played exquisitely by Marjorie Kay.  Kay, much like Gillette and Maupin,  said all that she needed to say with her gestures and facial features.  It was never over done; I never once thought to myself that one expression or another was too much.  She brings a simple beauty and grace to the screen as a character and actress.  In an era of films littered with the likes of 50 Shades of Grey,  it was certainly something to behold a woman who was smart, independent and not be overpowered by those deemed to be stronger than her.  James and Madge Larabee (portrayed by Mario Majeroni and Grace Reals, respectively) brought an air of fun and humour as the pair of slightly bumbling baddies holding Faulkner and who, despite Moriarty's aid, are foiled by Holmes.

Last, certainly not least for a film of 100 years, its restoration.  In a few words: beautiful, amazing, unbelievable, art. All film can be viewed as art.  Sherlock Holmes certainly fits and its restoration confirms it.  In a joint, collaborative team effort between La Cinematheque Francaise and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the result of a lost film restored to its original grandeur is an accomplishment.  One aspect that sets it apart from other films of its era, which gives it an artistic quality, is the use of colour--yes, colour!  Single monotone hues of yellow and blue were in the film at particular points in the story.  The restoration team decided to leave this as it helped tell the story--blue hues during the nighttime atmosphere and yellow hues during a daytime setting. Giving it that final early twentieth century feeling, the film came complete with its own original soundtrack using only a piano, violin and percussions as well as sound effects, similar to what Gillette may have used based off of archives of the play, with door bells, slams and rats in a basement.  With that, my trip to 1920 was complete.  Might had it been better with a time machine?  Who knows, but I am thrilled the opportunity I had for this particular trip back.
A rainy day at the Louvre

Upon my return to 21st Century Paris, the pleasure of meeting and talking with people who enjoy the same interests continued through the evening as I joined the Sherlock Holmes Society of France for after movie drinks.  As much as I was frustrated with those who seemed to mock and be plain rude to me, there were those who I felt a certain kinship with, those who didn't hear my accent or bad grammar and only the language of Sherlock Holmes.  To them a heartfelt--Merci. And, to William Gillette for being the first of over 150 actors to portray the great detective on stage, then screen. The game will always be afoot!

*Information from Le Guide du film Sherlock Holmes (1916) by the Sherlock Holmes Society of France

02 November 2014

Devon Delights: A Return to Dartmoor

There was a a perfect foggy midst settling upon the moor. It was a scene befitting of Conan Doyle himself.
In fact I felt quite in a similar position as I traveled through Dartmoor by coach with 59 other Holmesians this September.

It was my second trip to the moors of Devon, but when you're surrounded by enthusiasts of the same stories, of the same characters, of the same author it was a whole different experience than my own initial exploration last year.

The residence was Dartington Hall, near Totnes.  The 14th Century, 50-room estate had many rooms with a view on the centre courtyard or surrounding gardens in this relaxing venue where we could all meet and mingle as well as serve as the starting into our adventures in Dartmoor!

The weekend kicked off Friday night with  a meal in the 14th Century Grand Hall—built between 1388 and 1400—at the Dartington Estate.  The Great Hall’s large wooden beams and towering windows illustrated the hall’s great stature.  One could imagine Hugo Baskerville himself magnificently gallivanting in front of the large rectangular fireplace that graced the front of the grand room, entertaining his entourage so much that everyone took some time to admire it.

The final event of the evening consisted of a video compiled by Paul Singleton entitled, A Hound It Was…Projecting the Baskerville Curse.  Running roughly 90 minutes, the video presented a look at the visual adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles from television and film; animated, in colour, as well as black and white.  Holmes stalwarts such as Cushing and Rathbone were among the numerous references in the piece, but other connections were also made: for example, a Holmes played by Tom Baker in 1982 and even a 1972 adaptation with William Shatner as Stapleton.

The journey through Dartmoor began bright and early on Saturday 20 September.  Much like Conan Doyle may have done, we all gathered in our form of modern transport to brave the wild, winding, rough roads of the moor.  The three coaches—red, blue, and green coded—packed with Holmesian pilgrims traversed the moorlands throughout the entire day.  Through the villages of Ashburton—(the home of Fletcher Robinson and Arthur Conan Doyle’s coach driver, Henry Baskerville), Bovey Tracey, and Moretonhampstead we went until reaching the moors themselves. 

As if on order from Sherlock Holmes himself, we drove through the early morning fog-covered moors barely sighting the surrounding landscape.  The fog accompanied us on our way as we dodged moorland sheep and cattle.  In a few miles, the fog began to clear, leaving in its wake amazing and bright views.  Horseman, hounds and ponies passed us on our way to our first views of the towering Tors mentioned by Watson in Hound of the Baskervilles —Vixen and Black Tors.  An unexpected stop at Black Tor provided an opportunity for the pilgrims to take pictures of the outcropping of rock and one couldn’t help but imagine a moon-lit silhouette far off in the distance.

The first afternoon was in Princetown, where we drove past Dartmoor prison—former home to Selden, the Notting Hill murderer.  A visit to the newly refurbished National Visitor Centre, formerly The Duchy Hotel and site where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had spent time writing Hound of the Baskervilles, provided a leisurely visit of the Centre complete with an area dedicated to Conan Doyle and his connection with the Centre and a spirited talk by a Centre staff member.   The Princetown Centre is home to a family-friendly exhibit on Dartmoor and its history as well as an exhibition room.  As visitors we were invited to enjoy ourselves with the items in Doyle’s re-created study and peek inside, what appeared to be a trunk left by Mr. Holmes himself!  

The next stop would be to take the view of the Fox Tor Mire:  the mire most credited with being identified as the deadly bog in Holmes and Watson’s adventure. All were advised to stay near the bus and not travel too far lest we be taken and, though a few dared to walk some yards for a better look, many heeded the warning and enjoyed the wondrous view of the Highland Moor from sturdier land.  In the end, we all returned to our transport safely and were ready for out next stop—Two Bridges—for lunch.

The post-lunch travel we were all ready to take on the next stops as we headed toward a view of Belliver Tor—a fair distance from Vixen Tor, leading many to not believe Dr. Watson when he says that he could take in the “fantastic shapes and Belliver and Vixen Tor.”  Driving the distance, it is certainly a strong argument that Watson had indeed made a mistake in the identification of the Tors.  Laughter Hole Farm followed as the probable site of Dr. Frankland’s home where Watson notes his litigations and telescopes. 
By mid-afternoon, we found ourselves in “the small, grey hamlet” of Postbridge.  It is common to identify of this site as a good candidate for Grimpen, where Mortimer lived and the telegram were sent from the Post Office, the remnant of which can still be seen today.  Everyone enjoyed the stop to visit the hamlet shops and the 12th Century clapper bridge. 

We loaded ourselves into the coaches once again to brave more winding Moorish roads to locate Grimspound.  Narrow roads and the modern hassles of inconvenient parking prevented a proper view of one of the best-known pre-historic settlements on Dartmoor. 

A stop at Widecombe in the Moor was the perfect opportunity wander a small village in the heart of Dartmoor.  The village, also a candidate for Grimpen, is more associated as part of the inspiration for the town of Coombe Tracey in The Hound of the Baskervilles.  After viewing so many Tors, we all were able to explore one for ourselves.  Hound Tor, not mentioned in Conan Doyle’s Hound, but certainly important to BBC’s Hounds of Baskerville as it served for the site Sherlock and John surveyed the Great Grimpen Minefield. 

The final evening stop was made in Buckfastleigh to visit the remains at the Church of the Holy Trinity and the tomb of Cavalier Richard Cabell of Brook Manor—undoubtedly the original “Hugo Baskerville” and influence for the legend.  Cabell’s former home, Brook Manor, even bears a similar description to Baskerville.  Finally, we were even treated to our own reading of the legend followed by some local insights to the legend. 

Sunday 21 September began a bit later.  One coach left Dartington Hall bound for the sunshine of the “English Riviera” rather than the fog and mist of the moorlands.  The Dartmouth Steam Railway, outfitted much like the Victorian trains of Holmes’s time, took us on a journey from Paignton to Kingswear (and back) to enjoy the sites along the way.  It wasn’t hard to imagine the many journeys Homes and Watson took on similar trains to Dartmoor or the many other destinations their adventures took them.

A yearly trip to Dartmoor looks like a nice plan on the horizon.  Maybe next year, camping!  

A ride on a steam train a la Orient Express
A train car with a special name, dear to my heart. 
A Victorian train and a bunch of Sherlockians--Holmes sweet Holmes


05 October 2014

Theatrical Delights: Different perspective, different outcomes.

One week. One week after seeing the piece of Richard III at Trafalgar Studios, and I still couldn't make sense of what I had witnessed.  Directed by Jamie Lloyd and starring Martin Freeman in his first professional Shakespeare role, this modern take on Richard III turned my understanding of The Bard upside down. Lloyd's adaptations are known for doing just that and this was no exception.
I love Shakespeare.  I am a fan of Martin Freeman's work.  I was excited about the play, but I walked out of my initial viewing of Richard III confused.  Set in 1970s England, I couldn't wrap my head around a decade where I was not around or certainly too young to remember anything that happened, particularly across the pond.   Oddly enough,  this adaptation set in fairly modern times lost me just as much as it may have if it was set in its original time period.

I have gotten past not knowing the time period before, after all every piece of Shakespeare was of course written hundreds of years ago, therefore, this wasn't the issue; how it was put together to take hold of and keep an audience throughout the story that makes good theatre.

The staging of Richard III made this most difficult.  Stage designer, Soutra Glimour's scene was difficult to grasp for this adaptation. The 1970's office meeting room style with its large, intruding, bulky brown conference tables, and vomit-colored green swivel chairs made the committee room as un-navigable as the battlefield it would later portray.  I had to give kudos to the cast for being able to work around that set and not get bruised and battered by bumping into desk corners every night and, in general, working within such a small confounding space when they originally had a good-sized stage.

Luckily, casting did make the staging, and therefore, the story and adaptation work.  Freeman's 'first professional' Shakespearan performance was an unforgettable experience.  This role worked in his favour as he was able to bring out all the tools in his arsnel including that Martin Freeman ability to say a thousand words with one look giving Richard that air of carefully plotted revenge; an image that fits well in the 20th Century.  The language also flowed as easily from him as Tolkien's or even Conan Doyle's do, and I found myself astounded at the grace and speed with which it was all delivered.  Buckingham, played by Jo Stone-Fewing,was a great right-hand to Freeman's Richard.  While Gina McKee (who I recognised from Notting Hill) brought a stoic bravery to Queen Elizabeth who could not control what was going on around her.

As with many things twice is better than once.  One month later,I decided to give Richard another try.  Revist him again from another perspective.  Delightfully, much of my misgivings from first impressions where laid to rest the second time around.  It all could have been a matter of perspective.  The time period still wasn't much clearer, although with the help of the theatre programme a bit more understandable, and the staging hadn't changed and still posed an obstacle, but I had moved from the front seating to the seating on the stage itself: the one bit of different staging that seemed to work.  From this vantage, I was able to really see the performers and their use of the awkward space, Freeman's facial gesture's came to life even more, and I left with the second time around with more appreciation for the story and this particular adaptation.

13 July 2014

Theatre Delights: Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible' shines with amazing ensemble and timely story

This 4th of July I saw no fireworks or didn't eat at any BBQs.  In fact, since living in London I haven't had a typical Fourth, but this is one I will certainly never forget.  By some degrees of separation I could argue that the play, Arthur Miller's The Crucible, was a fine play for the day.  It is written by one of the most revered American playwrights, took place in one of the original 13 colonies, and was the means to comment on one of the most unpleasant bits of US history--the McCarthy era.

The Crucible advertising
I know Miller's name and his other celebrated play, Death of a Salesman, but was not familiar with The Crucible save for its name and that it was set during the Salem witch trails of 1692. Therefore, as I entered The Old Vic Theatre's Round Stage I had no idea what to expect.  I just knew I was seeing a celebrated piece of theatre with an actor I had enjoyed from film and television.  What I received was a spellbinding, riveting performance from an ensemble cast who had given their all to tell this story with intensity, a sense of importance, and sincerity. The staging and setting was simple.  The simpler the better, I believe.  A period-piece to the core, director Yeal Farber set her scene properly in Salem, Massachusetts of 1692, where the church and religion prevailed and one idea planted by the proper person was taken as word; no one questioned their leaders, political or religious.  Miller was using the scene to comment on 1950's America; however, Farber and her cast showed us that it is a relevant story whether it is told in the 17th, 20th, or 21st centuries.  And she has wisely left it to the viewer to decide what the message is for them.

Through the magnificent ensemble a few players did shine bright.  Richard Armitage, who played the main protagonist John Proctor, was certainly one of them.  Armitage is well-known in Britain for the work he has done on television and internationally in film.  As someone who had known his work from these, I was excited at the prospect and opportunity to see his work on stage; he did not disappoint.  From the moment Armitage walked on stage it seemed as though he literally carried the weight of the world on his shoulders; we later learn of the infidelity that does weigh him down.  His Proctor is full of regret and continually seeks forgiveness from his wife while pushing away further temptation from the young Abigail Williams (played with plotting perfection by Samantha Colley), whom his wife sent away due to her suspicions.  After becoming so familiar with an actor's work, I sometimes feel as if one character or performance leek into another. I asked myself, would Thorin Oakenshield or John Thornton seep through into John Proctor?  The answer is a resounding no.  Armitage's Proctor is spell-binding making this audience member (jury member we may argue given the way the Old Vic's Round theatre was organised) certain that despite his failings and mistake he was a good man.

Proctor's wife Elizabeth, played with force and grace by Anna Madeley, is both a woman of her time and ours.   Making her first appearance quite far into the play, she emboldens Elizabeth with strength and purpose within her first few lines.  Her relationship with her husband has clearly cooled due to her suspicions and actions, but she continues with her duties and expectations as a farmer's wife: preparing dinner, rearing the children, and keeping the home.  The Crucible was filled with emotionally charged performances during the accusations and trials, but I would argue that Armitage and Madeley's powerful scenes together told the simple story of a husband and wife trying to work through a crisis and finally finding their way back to each other.  Simplicity.

With an amazing adaptation, a powerful ensemble cast, such as the thundering witch-hunting Judge Danforth, a powerful and frightful performance by actor Jack Ellis in addition to the minister-with-a-conscience Rev. John Hale, throughly brought to life by Adrian Schiller, it is no wonder that it has impressed all that have have been fortunate enough to view it.  On a stage made you feel as if you were part of a jury, it left this juror realising how easy it is for one idea or claim to lead a group of people, a commuity, even a population to be steered in a particular direction, even if it is false.

28 March 2014

Theatrical Delights: Off-West end Holmesian theatre adaptation of A Study in Scarlet continues the game with grace

A light fog settles on Brixton Hill Road as I walk along the pavement towards home. I had just come back from Brixton Road, Baker Street, and Utah--in 1881.

An adaptation of the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet from Tacit Theatre at the Southwark Playhouse, could go anywhere. Sitting in the comfy, worn, brown couches I sit with a couple friends relaxing, I wonder how this small, south London theatre will stage the consulting detective. As with my previous experience in the realm of small, independent theatres there was no need to be concerned. Conan Doyle's first Holmes' story was adapted and with creativity, originality, and reverence for the story, while the performances were new and familiar at the same time. Holmes and Watson, once again, leapt off the page in true theatrical force with amazing staging, sound, story, and performances.

When I walk into the the small theatre with general seating, I could have been walking into 221B itself. Holmes and Watson's chairs were neatly placed next to each other with proper places for pipes, chemistry experiments, violins and a spattering of the appropriate wall coverings.
221B in the Southwark Playhouse
The intimate setting gives a hint as to how the audience will be able to feel perfectly involved with what is going on in the story whether we are in the barren Utah or Lauriston Gardens. The performers are so close one can be often sitting right next to them, or inches away as Watson gazed out of the windows contemplating his new-found flatmate's powers of deduction. The sound?  Music, with musical instruments played by all the actors! Yes, almost every actor was also a musician.  Holmes, of course, played a mean violin along with Mrs. Hudson.  Jefferson Hope on a stringed instrument, Lestrade on a clarinet, and various other musical instruments rounding out the original musical score. A score that gives both a soundtrack to the play, but also adds the right amount of ambiance sound at the ideal time.

Story.  Adapting a story needs to be done with as much care and thought as writing an original piece. As I read A Study in Scarlet for the first time, I found myself enthralled at the story happening at Baker Street and Lauriston Gardens, but had a hard time with the chunk that took place in the wilds of the American West.  The adapters for this version of Conan Doyle's story, Greg Freeman and Lila Whelan, took the stories' "American experience" and English bits and intertwined them allowing the action in America to guide the story in London.
Staging of 221B
Finally--performance.  The small seven-player ensemble of this piece made 14 different characters and various stage changes seem easy.  With many actors playing multiple roles and going from American accents to British ones, from Holmes and Watson to Lestrade and Gregson, Conan Doyle's characters kept their original characterisation while allowing their humour or amazement and growing comaraderie to shine in the forefront.   A younger Holmes and Watson (played by actors Philip Benjamin and Edward Cartwright, respectively) captured the individual, and well-recognised, traits needed to portray the pair--something that didn't really surprise me after learning that Benjamin had a scene with Sherlock in series one and Cartwright played the detective himself in a documentary on the forensic specialties of Holmes.  Conan Doyle's representatives of Scotland Yard in London as well as the villans in America were portrayed with two other actors with fun and reverance, and even the role of Jefferson Hope, the executor of revenge, was portrayed by the same performer who was the local constable.

With the first adventure complete, we see Holmes and Watson sitting in Baker Street when the latter contemplates the end of the adventure;  Holmes, all knowing, tells him that it's not the end, but only the beginning!

I have seem many wonderful plays in the big theatres of the West-End, but the discovery of the smaller, independent theatres in the north and south of town has been a delight.  Two plays in small theatres (yes, both with Holmesian stories) allows the audience to  experience theatre outside of assigned seating; it allows one to sit right in Baker Street and join Holmes and Watson on their adventure as opposed to on the fringe.  I left the theatre with a high leaving me wanting to talk more about the play, the story, the detective, not wanting to return to the 21st Century for the moment.