Monday, 31 August 2015

Our artistic director Ben Spiller introduced a screening of Chimes at Midnight as part of an Orson Welles season at QUAD arts centre in Derby.

Chimes at Midnight booklet page 1"Good evening, ladies and gentleman, and welcome to QUAD. My name is Ben Spiller and I'm the artistic director of 1623 theatre company, which is all about seeing Shakespeare differently.

At 1623, we’re always looking for new and exciting ways to inspire, surprise and affect people with Shakespeare’s work through innovative performance, learning workshops, participatory activities and training courses.

It’s my great pleasure to introduce Chimes at Midnight this evening. The film was considered by its director Orson Welles to be his best. Despite its frosty reception by film critics when it was first released, Welles remarked about 20 years later that, “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, this is the one I’d offer up.”

This might come as a surprise from the man who brought us Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, but it was the emotional connection that he felt with the central character Sir John Falstaff and the father-son relationship with young Prince Hal that prompted him to see Falstaff as his greatest performance and Chimes at Midnight as his greatest film.

Welles prepared the screenplay himself by bringing together scenes from five Shakespeare plays: mainly the two parts of Henry IV, but also Richard II, Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Interspersed amongst Shakespeare’s words are those of Raphael Holinshed, a 16th-century historian whose Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland influenced Shakespeare when he was writing his History Plays.

Falstaff 02Chimes at Midnight was first released in 1966, at a time when Welles was in reflective mode after having experienced more than 20 years of highs and lows in film, theatre and radio. Whenever he found himself in this frame of mind, he turned to Shakespeare to guide him through the uncertainty.

By 1966, he had developed a strong association with the works of Shakespeare, through successful stage productions of Macbeth and Julius Caesar, Hamlet on radio, his own Broadway adaptation of eight of Shakespeare’s History Plays called Five Kings, a reworking of Five Kings called Chimes at Midnight (which premiered in Ireland 20 years later), a low-budget yet highly innovative film of Macbeth, a deeply moving Othello shot on location in Europe and Morocco and a live TV performance on CBS as the lead role in King Lear, directed by Shakespeare visionary Peter Brook.  Welles’s work on Chimes at Midnight was a culmination of all these Shakespearean experiences.

Taking inspiration from Shakespeare once again, Welles reworked his 1960 stage production of Chimes at Midnight into his 1966 film, just as his so-called and highly successful ‘Voodoo’ Macbeth staged in the Bronx in 1936 had influenced his 1948 film adaptation of the play. Not only did he look back on a past Shakespeare project to help himself create a new one, he chose to explore Shakespeare’s own exploration of history to reflect, reminisce and – to quote Welles himself – ‘lament the passing of Merrie England’.

About half-way through another of Shakespeare’s history plays Henry VI Part 2, the playwright gives us a brief history lesson through the role of the Duke of York. It’s a bit of a story-so-far and it helps to provide some context for Chimes at Midnight. You might want to refer to the royal family tree in your programme (which you can view by clicking here), as this can get a bit confusing.

Chimes at Midnight booklet page 5Edward the Third, my lords, had seven sons:
The first, Edward the Black Prince, Prince of Wales;
The second, William of Hatfield; and the third,
Lionel Duke of Clarence; next to whom
Was John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster;
The fifth was Edmund Langley, Duke of York;
The sixth was Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester;
William of Windsor was the seventh and last.
Edward the Black Prince died before his father
And left behind him Richard, his only son,
Who after Edward the Third's death reigned as king;
Till Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster,
The eldest son and heir of John of Gaunt,
Crowned by the name of Henry the Fourth,
Seized on the realm, deposed the rightful king,
Sent his poor queen to France from whence she came,
And him to Pomfret; where, as all you know,
Harmless Richard was murdered traitorously.
Thus got the house of Lancaster the crown,
Which now they hold by force and not by right.

In Henry IV Part 1 – which, incidentally, was written after Henry VI Part 2 (the play from which the above speech is taken) and forms the most part of Chimes at Midnight – Richard II’s true heir Edmund Mortimer is being kept prisoner in Wales and his cousins (Earl of Worcester, Earl of Northumberland and Northumberland’s son Hotspur) confront Henry IV to demand that he step aside to allow Mortimer to be King. Henry refuses and throws them out of court; so they begin their conspiracy to overthrow the king.

Meanwhile, Henry’s young heir Prince Hal angers, disappoints and embarrasses the king because he spends most of his time at the Boar’s Head Tavern with prostitutes, criminals and Sir John Falstaff, a disgraced knight of the realm who enjoys drinking, eating and making mischief. He’s a huge man who binges for comfort in the face of having seen better days. Is this Welles, or Falstaff, or both? Whichever, he has ‘heard the chimes at midnight’ with old friends and now mourns the passing of time.

I hope you enjoy the film."


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