The Ground Beneath Her Feet

Alan Rickman and Mike Figgis

Salman Rushdie’s 1999 novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet has been turned by composer Victoria Borisova-Ollas into a multimedia semi-opera, which premiered at the Manchester International Festival on June 29th. The multi-layered, fabulist blending of the Orpheus and Euridyce myth with the tale two Bombay rock stars involves the Hallé orchestra, electric guitars, readings by Alan Rickman, and – the reason for its notice here – a silent film directed by Mike Figgis, who has also directed the stage production.

Figgis’ half-hour film echoes the action, as indicated in this extract from a Guardian article:

Figgis is putting together a combination of still images and brief snatches of action – a “tableau vivant” is how he describes it to me in between takes at the small studio in Battersea, London, where he is filming over four days, working with a small budget and revelling in it. “I enjoy the fact that you’re very clear about what your limitations are and they’re not negotiable,” he says. “You can’t suddenly stop traffic or get extras. I woke up this morning and thought, ‘I wonder if they’re going to get enough denim farmwear together [for a scene set in the American midwest]. I remembered I had two denim work jackets and some cowboy neckerchiefs, so I brought them in.”

Figgis is anxious not to produce images that overpower the music (“I have to behave – and I am, I really am,” he says), and he does not intend to tell the story literally. Instead, he will provide filmic allusions that echo both story and score. “The book uses magic realism,” he says. “Fables dovetail and parallel each other. Film should try and function in the same way. But it needs to be very simple. It can’t be doing the sort of fireworks that would take the audience out of the music. It’s an interesting reversal. I’m a composer, too, so I do film scores. The function of the film score is to support the image. This is the opposite: the imagery is to support the music.”

An intriguing reversal indeed, to have a silent film acompanying a score (actually it happens a lot, but is promoted the other way round). However, I’ve found frustratingly little to describe the actual content of the film, nor any news as yet of any other performances. There are reviews to read in The Guardian and The Times, though they make little reference to the film.

Shakespeare in the Canyon

I’ve been doing some research recently on films of Shakespeare’s plays in 1916, the tercentenary of his death, when there was great interest in his work, inevitably, and the film industry responded with a number of films of the plays.

However, while working on this I came across an intriguing story which is worth telling. To mark the tercentenary, the Hollywood Businessmen’s Club decided to put on a spectacular stage production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, with the co-operation of the nearby film industry, which had moved into the area only a few years earlier. The production was put on at Beachwood Canyon, in the Hollywood Hills, in a natural amphitheatre (not what would become the Hollywood Bowl, but not far from it), on Friday 19 May 1916. It featured a cast of 5,000, who performed before an audience of 40,000. Stage properties were provided by D.W. Griffith, Jesse Lasky, Thomas Ince, Mack Sennett and the universal Film Corporation, and the production featured gladiatorial combats, exotic dances, and a re-enactment of the Battle of Philippi which commenced half a mile down the canyon before working its way up to the stage.

But what is really eye-catching is the cast. Here they all are, with a few names that are still familiar (Fairbanks, Murray, Power), some that were once familiar (Hopper, Roberts, Farnum) and the remainder assorted Hollywood locals who were familiar only to their nearest and dearest:

Julius Caesar ………. Theodore Roberts
Marcus Brutus ………. Tyrone Power
Marc Antony ……….. Frank Keenan
Cassius ………. William Farnum
Casca ………. DeWolf Hopper
Young Cato ………. Douglas Fairbanks
Octavius Caesar ………. Charles Gunn
Cicero ………. Hal Wilson
Decius Brutus ………. H.B. Carpenter
Trebonius ………. Mark Fenton
Lucilius ………. Tully Marshall
Metellus Cimber ………. Cecil Lionel
Cinna ………. T.H. Gibson-Gowland
Flavius ………. Wilbur Higby
Marullus ………. Gilmore Hammond
Artemidorus ………. Harry W. Schumm
Soothsayer ………. Carl Stockdale
Calpurnia ………. Constance Crawley
Barbaric Dancer ………. Mae Murray
Cinna, a poet ………. Seymour Hastings
Titinius ……….. T.E. Duncan
Messala ………. T.D. Crittenden
Lucius ………. Capitola Holmes
Varro ………. N.A. Kessler
Pindarus ………. George Berengere
Publius ………. C.H. Geldert
Popilius Lena ………. Howard Foster
First Citizen ………. Arthur Maude
2nd Citizen ………. Ernest Shield
3rd Citizen ……….. Robert Anderson
4th Citizen ………. Clara Turner
5th Citizen ………. Samuel Searle
Slave to Caesar ………. Ralph Benzies
Slave to Antony ………. Robert Lawler
High Priest ………. M. Luiz
High Priestess ………. Florence Amy Donaldson
Portia ………. Sarah Truax
Cleopatra ………. Grace Lord

The director was Raymond Wells (presumably the film director of that name), and the assistant directors were Ernest Shield, Captain Louis R. Ball, Ralph Benzies, Mark Fenton, Nicolas Kessler, Robert Lawler, Mrs L.R. Ball, Miss Marjorie Riley, Miss Clara Turner, C.A. Bradshaw. These are some other credits that survive:

Scenic artists ………. A.J. Lapworth, W.H. Blackburn
Choreography ………. Marjorie Riley
Musical director ………. Wilbur W. Campbell (with musical selections from Delibes, Luigini, Tchaikovsky and others)

Students from Hollywood and Fairfax High Schools also featured in the crowd scenes. Assorted local figures were responsible for the organisational side of things. It was all done for the Actor’s Equity Association and made a net profit of $2,500. A follow-up indoor production then took place on 5 June 1916, at the Majestic Theatre, Los Angeles, supported financially by Griffith and Sennett.

What a show this must have been. Alas, I’ve not come across any photographs, and I’ve not yet gone looking for any reviews. It’s certainly a story worth pursuing for someone. Most of the above information I got from Ernest O. Palmer’s History of Hollywood (1938), plus an article by Catherine Parsons Smith in the journal American Music on the history of the Hollywood Bowl.

Just for the record, these are the Shakespeare films made in 1916:

THE REAL THING AT LAST (GB 1916 d. L.C. MacBean p.c. British Actors)
MACBETH (France 1916 p.c. Eclair)
MACBETH (USA 1916 d. John Emerson p.c. Triangle-Reliance)
MASTER SHAKESPEARE, STROLLING PLAYER (USA 1916 d. Frederic Sullivan p.c. Thanhouser)
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (GB 1916 d. Walter West p.c. Broadwest)
ROMEO AND JULIET (USA 1916 d. John W. Noble p.c. Metro)
ROMEO AND JULIET (USA 1916 d. J. Gordon Edwards p.c. Fox)
KING LEAR (USA 1916 d. Ernest Warde p.c. Thanhouser)
Also a 1913 MACBETH (GB/Germany d. Ludwig Landmann p.c. Film-Industrie) was re-issued in America in 1916.

Mander and Mitchenson

The world famous collection of theatre memorabilia gathered together by Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson has now published an online catalogue. The collection comprises over two thousand archive boxes containing playbills, posters, programmes, engravings, cuttings and production photographs of London and British regional theatres. There are files on every actor and actress of note in the British theatre, and sections on circus, dance, opera, music-hall, variety, dramatists, singers and composers, together with many engravings and pictures.

Inevitably, there is much that relates to the cinema, especially the early years of cinema. There are few documents themselves available online, but judicious use of the catalogue fields yields gems. There is a Search Everything option, and individuals fields for Names, Titles, Subjects, Dates and Keywords. Each search result provides a Brief Details and a Full Description. This is where the useful stuff lies – some thorough catalogue descriptions, such as this for the Palace Theatre in London’s Cambridge Circus, an important venue for Biograph films in the late 1890s/early 1900s, and host to occasional film shows thereafter:

Palace Theatre (Cambridge Circus, London) Collection

Resource code: GB2649-MM-TL-PLC
Title: Palace Theatre (Cambridge Circus, London) Collection
Format: Set plans and designs; Documents (production); Ephemera eg. daybills and flyers; Programmes; Drawings; Prints; Photographs (production); Photographs (venue); Photographs (miscellaneous); Negatives; Postcards; Music scores; Song sheets; Libretti; Autographs; Ephemera eg. tickets; Published material; Scrapbooks; Periodicals; Press cuttings; Correspondence; Manuscripts; Ephemera; Photocopies

Description: The Palace Theatre opened on 31 January 1891 as the Royal English Opera House under Richard D’Oyly Carte. It changed its name to the Palace Theatre of Varieties in 1892, and specialised in music hall/variety productions, hosting the Royal Command Variety Performance in 1912. From c1914 it began staging revues, as well as the occasional cinema shows in the 1920s and 1930s. In recent decades it has produced a large number of musicals.

Description: The papers include depictions of the exterior of the theatre as it was, 1896-c1989, and of the interior, c1903-1912, articles, press cuttings, notes, etc. relating to its history, 1891-20th century, theatre tickets, 1954-1968, a list of productions from 1891 to 1985, an information pack on the completion of exterior refurbishments, 1989, the Summer 1997 edition of Picture House, containing an article, Pictures at the Palace, by Graeme Cruickshank, a booklet, The Royal English Opera House and The Palace Theatre – 100 Glorious Years, An Illustrated Chronology, by George Cruickshank, 1991, programmes relating to charity and Sunday events, 1900-1994, and papers relating to the Royal Command performance of 1 July 1912.

Description: The majority of the material relates to performances and is arranged in chronological order from 1891 to 1999, although a number of items are copies or later reprints of original documents; the earliest original document is dated 1891. It includes a pen and ink sketch of Esther Palliser and David Bispham in La Basoche, 1891, a souvenir booklet issued by the theatre entitled The War by Biograph, 1900, set plans, etc. for The Gay Divorce, 1932, correspondence, set plans, wardrobe lists, technical specifications, etc. relating to a proposed performance of Carissima in South Africa, 1952, and an introductory booklet to the Théâtre Nationale Populaire, 1956. Coverage is particularly good for the following productions: Ivanhoe (1891), The Passing Show (1914-1915), Bric-à-Brac (1915), Vanity Fair (1916-1917), No No Nanette (1925), Heads Up! (1930), Dinner at Eight (1933), Streamline (1934), On Your Toes (1937) including a large number of stage plans, Under Your Hat (1938), Song of Norway (1946), Carissima (1948), King’s Rhapsody (1949), The Love Match (1953), Glorious Days (1953-1954), the Shakespeare Memorial Company’s touring production of King Lear (1955) including typed transcripts of revues, The Sound of Music (1961), Cabaret (1968), Mr. Mrs. (1968), Jesus Christ Superstar (1972) and Les Miserables (c1985-1999).

Language: eng
Conditions of access: By appointment
Acquisitions policy: Possible future additions
Owner: The Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson Theatre Collection
Copyright status: Contact Administrator for permissions
Collection located: Jerwood Library of the Performing Arts
Trinity College of Music
King Charles Court
Old Royal Naval College
London SE10 9JF
Keyword: Variety
Keyword: Revue
Keyword: Stage setting and scenery
Keyword: Technical information
Associated name: Palace Theatre, Cambridge Circus, London
Associated name: Royal English Opera House, Cambridge Circus, London
Associated name: Palace Theatre of Varieties, Cambridge Circus, London
Associated name: Théâtre Nationale Populaire
Geographic coverage: London
Collection time span: 1891-1999
Accumulated: 1938 –
Principal collector: Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson
Parent Collection: The Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson Theatre Collection

The collection itself is located at Trinity College of Music, Greenwich – contact details from the website.