After a lovely meal in Duo – where we met someone from the orchestra! – we joined the queue of freebie cheapskates to pick up the tickets from the box office and settled into Block B Row 5 to enjoy the evening’s entertainment.
Ralph McLean introduced the evening’s three silent films starring and produced/directed by Charlie Chaplain. The films, along with those shown on the Friday night, were made between 1916-1917, and have been recently restored. And it turns out that
“Charlie Chaplin was no stranger to Belfast in its music hall heyday. At the beginning of the last century he rented a room in one of the houses just off May Street in the city centre when appearing as a clown with a visiting circus. And the links don’t end there – Chaplin’s granddaughter Kiera was born in Belfast and is now a successful actress and model in Hollywood, Los Angeles.”
Projected from the back of the Waterfront onto a huge screen, the Ulster Orchestra sat like tiny ants underneath playing in exact synchrony with the on-screen activity. The films were never actually “silent” and were always accompanied by an orchestra, Composer Carl Davis write the scores performed tonight, but due to illness was unable to conduct. So the baton was in the capable hands of Helmut Imig.
The Fireman is a slapstick comedy. Misinterpretation, falling into buckets, gunge over head. Overlapping with Saturday morning kids TV in everything but colour!
In The Immigrant, Chaplain is playing a familiar role, that of a tramp. An immigrant on a transatlantic voyage , Chaplain is wrongly accused of being a pickpocket. As the ship sways, plates slides across the table. The first ten minutes or so would make you dizzy. Having reached dry land, the action switches to a restaurant where Chaplain is reunited with a woman from the voyage. Cue the drama of using someone else’s tip to pay for his own meal!
After the interval, the final short film was The Adventurer. The physicality of acting these films – chasing up and down sand dunes – must have been exhausting. Chaplain plays an escaped prisoner, who saves a young woman from drowning. Taken back to her house (pretending to be a Commodore rather than a convict) he is recognised and it turns into a farcical pantomime. Cold ice cream down the back of a woman’s dress (and the attempted recovery thereof). A fantastically imaginative scene catching pursuers’ heads in-between sliding doors.
Chaplain does not play entirely naïve characters. There is violence and intimidation; and he’s not afraid to join in. He’s no hapless victim despite the often stumbling appearance. Viewed in 2008, there’s an obvious political incorrectness. All white faces except for one actor digging holes in the road. The same cast appears time and time again, a company of talented actors able to perform mime, slapstick and faux fighting, fulfilling the various roles required to balance Chaplain’s comedy equation. (Though I bet there were plenty of bruises.)
With the concentration required to keep track of the fast-paced action, the music often faded away and became secondary. In that way, it was remarkably successful, with the orchestra not demanding attention, but skilfully keeping time with the action, augmenting the visual effects. Quite unlike some modern films, whose pace and tension is often driven more by the soundtrack and effects than the on-screen acting.
It as a very informal performance. The lights dimmed a little, but the audience wasn’t left in darkness. There was a running commentary from the row behind, and lots of loud guffawing – sometimes quite delayed from the on-screen action.
A lovely evening’s entertainment, and a trip back 90 years in time to the age of the silver screen. Hopefully the kind of accessible and fun performance that the Ulster Orchestra won’t forget or forgo when they return to the Grand Dame of Bedford Street – the Ulster Hall – when it reopens in March 2009 and becomes the Ulster Orchestra’s permanent home.