Globe to Globe Georgian ‘As You Like It’: Dancing with Umbrellas under an English Sky

Globe to Globe Festival  As You Like It in Georgian directed by Levan Tsuladze and performed by Marjanishvili Theatre, Saturday 19th May 2012: Evening

‘What did you think of As You Like It last night?’ my friend Aneta Mancewicz asked.

‘I thought it was really…pretty,’ I said, after a moment’s consideration.

‘Oh,’ she said, sounding a little disappointed with my response. ‘I thought it was really good.  They did some very interesting things around the idea of metatheatre, for example.’

‘Oh no, that’s not what I meant at all – I meant pretty in a good way…’

So what did I mean, and why was my gut reaction to this intelligent production of As You Like It by the Marjanishvili Theatre of Georgia apparently based on something so trivial? I think it was because, after the difficult, dark tragedies coming out of Eastern Europe as part of the Globe to Globe Festival, with the Polish Macbeth’s onstage rape of Lady Macduff and the Belarusian onstage hanging of King Lear‘s daughter, Cordelia, it was such a relief to watch a performance that literally fluttered between spring pastels and autumnal russets (I still have a leaf from the Forest of Arden enclosed in my programme).

(c) Jack Vettriano

The pretty young girls danced with their beaus under umbrellas and parasols, referencing perhaps the English weather or Merchant Ivory, and in their perfect choreography conjuring up those famous images of Jack Vettriano’s dancers on the beach.  In fact this production was a masterpiece of timing in every way.  The usual comic shenanigans took place among the shepherds, shepherdesses and clowns in the woodland glen in a translation that structurally and visually seemed to follow Shakespeare’s text closely, so that I felt a constant sense of recognition even though I couldn’t speak a word of Georgian.

However, Aneta was right.  This was a sophisticated take on the nature of theatre as well as a delightful evening’s entertainment.  Ignoring the Globe’s precept to perform with minimal set, the company brought along its own stage, which they erected in the middle of the Globe stage. Surrounded by upended travel chests, doubling as changing booths and lovers’ hidey-holes, this transformed As You Like It into a play-within-a-play, so that when Jacques made the equivalent of his ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech, the men and women he referred to really were ‘merely players’.  As they stepped on and off their stage, they slipped in and out of roles, of genders, of love, of costumes, of time and place. Sometimes it seemed as if the actors in the play-world were rehearsing their production, as they forgot lines or missed cues, yet at other times they fully inhabited the Forest of Arden. This liminality was at the heart of the interpretation.

rehearsal image (c) Teona Kvezereli

And underneath all its prettiness there was also a suggestion of melancholy.  This is in Shakespeare, of course, but as another Groundling, Laura, noted at the interval, all this Edwardiana I saw was actually Chekhovian.  A tall, sad, lonely actress separated herself from the rest of the ensemble as they first entered the stage and looked around the auditorium, cowered by what she saw.  Later, she would reveal her cropped hair and swap her skirts and lady’s hat for a man’s suit.  This Jacques reminded theatre blogger Shaksper of KD Lang, an observation that didn’t find its way into his detailed review.  However, it was not such a strange connection, as this mannish woman’s outsider status was palpable.  It was only in character that s/he seemed to have any identity at all.

The cross-dressing was clever.  Unlike Julia Tamor who turned Prospero into Prospera through the casting of Helen Mirren, Jacques did not become Jacqueline.  Likewise, Adam was also played by a woman, who, like Jacques, instead of turning herself into an  old nurse, simply dressed as a man.  Whether we were supposed to register these wo/men as drag kings or whether we were simply to see a democratic division of roles between the genders, I don’t know.  I suspect that it was the latter.  After all, in this play, nobody is really as they seem, from Rosalind playing Ganymede, to Actress playing Rosalind, to the real actress playing the Actress who plays Rosalind who plays Ganymede…  In the world of the play-within-the-play, I think we were supposed to see Jacques and Adam as men from the moment that they stepped onto their makeshift stage, just as an early modern audience would have seen Celia and Rosalind as young women.  I certainly forgot Jacques’ gender after awhile.

(c) John Haynes

Jacques was not the only sad note.  The rumbustious old Adam transformed into a broken old man from the moment that his and Orlando’s home was torched by the evil Oliver; this was represented by a tissue paper model and ‘The brief incandescent flame vividly demonstrated the intensity of Oliver’s hatred’ (Shaksper). I am perhaps reading too much into it, but Georgia’s recent history has been less then smooth.  Mass expulsions of Georgians, Ossetians and Azhbakians  took place in the early 1990s as the emerging nations and regions attempted to reassert themselves after the dissolution of the USSR, and it is less than a half a decade since the South Ossetia war. Even the autumn leaves that blew about the stage as the characters entered and left Arden were potentially as redolent of the end of things as they were of mellow fruitfulness.

(c) John Haynes, Globe to Globe blog

Yet only potentially, for this was a production in which light outshone the dark.  Orlando released his poems on balloons over Southwark, Touchstone and Audrey’s courtship was a larger than life celebration of healthy lustiness, Silvius got his Phebe, the evil Charles and his brother the Duke were permanently reconciled by dint of the fact that they were played by the same actor, and my abiding memory is of swirling leaves, and dancing umbrellas.

(c) John Haynes

One final thing to note: at the Globe to Globe Intercultural Shakespeare Conference earlier that day, Sonia Massai had talked of how we should no longer use the word ‘international’ as artists no longer traded in or across national consciousnesses but in a global, digitized world. Tom Bird expressed reservations about this, and noted how many national flags had been planted on the globe stage during the past weeks.  Marjanishvili didn’t bring a flag with them.  They didn’t need to.  A mother and grandmother pushed forward to the front of the stage during the ‘curtain’ call.  They thrust a bunch of flowers onstage and then a small boy, about two years old, in full Georgian national dress, to tumultuous cheers. The little boy, of course, looked completely bemused.

Globe to Globe’s Belarusian ‘King Lear’: the Musical

Нічога не выйдзе з нічога

‘Nothing will come of nothing.’

Shakespeare’s King Lear directed by Vladimir Shcherban, produced (?) by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada and performed by Belarus Free Theatre, Globe to Globe, Friday 18th May 2012: Evening

(c) Lonely Planet

Shall I be honest in this review? I don’t know anything about Belarus, other than it was part of the former Soviet Bloc.  I know a Belarusian student, and we’ve often talked about Shakespeare, or about the international experience, but I’ve never really asked her about where she has come from. I could make an excuse that I don’t want to pry, but in reality it’s because I know so little that I don’t know where to start.

Since the Globe to Globe Festival invited the Belarus Free Theatre to participate in its 37 plays in 37 languages project, I know a little bit more.  Before I’d even read beyond the theatre’s name in the festival brochure, I guessed that if the theatre was ‘Free’ then the country probably wasn’t.   According to the Globe:

Belarus Free Theatre was founded in March 2005 by husband and wife team Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada, and joined by Vladimir Scherban. Their performances in Belarus are held secretly, in small private apartments, the location of which, due to the risk of persecution, must constantly be changed. Despite suffering every form of intimidation and harassment, BFT continue to produce great theatre that is recognised internationally.

This was all I knew as I stood at the front of the stage in the Yard along with some hardened Groundlings. A skinhead sat on stage, peeling potatoes: Edmund.  Playing with expectations, Edgar, the favoured son, tumbled on smoking a spliff and attempted to snog his male companion.  Gloucester (probably the same age, late twenties or early thirties) rolled on in a wheelchair.  An even more youthful Kent knelt on a wheelie board, like a street beggar, his legs useless. The two young ‘old’ men circled and mocked the young bastard son.  I’ve seen just enough Eastern European theatre to know that everything will be important: a country crippled by war, the youth dispossessed and angry, or spoilt and dissolute.  I make a note to myself of things to note; not only the thematic imagery, but also the small things.  Will that potato be important in the second half? (Yes.) Will Gloucester’s blinding be somehow represented through his glasses? (Sort of…) How will Kent disguise himself and follow Lear if he can’t walk? (Ingenious!)

(c) Stephen Kane

This was a visceral, visual, contemporary, and sickly funny production. Cut to one and a half hours, punctuated by cabaret song and dance pieces, it was King Lear: the Musical!

At the Globe to Globe Intercultural Shakespeare Symposium the next day, Festival Director Tom Bird told how he had asked Belarus Free Theatre to participate in the festival.

‘We don’t do the Classics,’ they said.*

The production was actually directed by Vladimir Shcherban, as he pointed out in a comment on this blog after a generous affirmation of this review!  However, in the flurry of performances, I had got confused and at the time thought it was directed by the company’s co-founder Nikolai Khalezin.  In my imagination, I saw Nikolai turn to his producer wife, Natalia Kaliada, and say, ‘Can you believe it? They really thought that we would be interested in doing Shakespeare!!!’ Then I saw his wife raise her eyebrow ever so slightly and prompt, ‘And you – you said what?’ ‘I said no, of course!’ Natalia’s voice became edged with ice.  ‘You said WHAT?’ she repeated.  ‘We’ve just been invited to an international festival, in the run-up to the Olympics, at a sell-out London venue, and you said we don’t do the Classics!’ In my imagination, which was now running away with itself, she ran to the bookshelf, picked up a Complete Works of Shakespeare in Belarusian, if such a thing exists, and hurled it at her husband’s head, screaming ‘What about the money, you idiot!’

Returning my mind to the lecture theatre, Tom Bird was continuing his narrative. ‘About a month later, I got a letter from the Belarus Free Theatre, saying that they had changed their minds and wondered if there were any plays left.  Well, it just so happened that an Aboriginal company had just had to withdraw. I asked them if they would be interested in taking over King Lear…’

What serendipity, because I can’t think of another play that would have suited them better: a divided country under the control of a backward looking autocrat who doesn’t love his children.  I’m sure they saw a metaphor in that for contemporary Belarus and the government of Alexander Lukashenko…

King Lear, bent double by the years, slowly pushed an old fashioned pram onto the stage.  His court sat diagonally to him, turned out towards the audience.  The three daughters wore traditional folk dress. Then Lear leapt up and revealed himself to be in virile middle aged (although compared to the extreme youth of the rest of the cast, he was, indeed, pretty ancient!).  Striding around the stage in an ankle length black leather coat, a silver gauntlet on one arm, he was no weak old man at the mercy of his harpy daughters.  In fact, he made them stoop to kiss his gauntlet several times during the production, which @Shaksper interprets as a metaphor from hawking, as the huntsman calls them to obedience. He had the enigmatic qualities of a gypsy king. His sycophantic Fool wore a joke-shop bowtie that lit up as he accompanied the action on the piano, and when he mooned the audience he had K. L. tattooed on his buttocks!  In order to get their share of his kingdom, his daughters had to dance for their Daddy (oh-so-Freudian)….  Regan did a rock-chic number, Cordelia parodied both sisters and got a bloody nose for her pains, but it was Goneril who captivated.  Dancing first, she was caught somewhere between little girl and lap dancer.  The land that Lear divided was literally earth, scooped out from the pram and into his daughter’s lifted up skirt, as she knelt, knees akimbo, before him.  As she turned back to face the audience, her belly seemed to have swollen with child, in anticipation of her father’s later curses on her barren womb.  But later, transferred into a cheap plastic tub, roses bloomed in Goneril’s earth alone.

It might have been because I was reading Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, or it may have been the actress, but I couldn’t take my eyes off any scene she was in, as she became the female emotional centre of the production.

Belarus Free Theatre knew how to work its audience.  There were audible groans of delighted disgust when Edgar, transforming himself into Poor Tom, and literally shitting himself with fear, put his hand inside his underpants and smeared his excrement over his body and face.

(c) Stephen Kane

It challenged in other ways, however.  The power struggle between daughters and father was played out visually when Goneril and Regan embraced their father before casting him out. He began to turn, slowly as first, then faster and faster, swinging their bodies outwards, their feet lifting from the ground as they clung on for dear life.

Gloucester, a religious hypocrite, could easily be duped into rejecting his wayward elder son.  Edmund, the moment before he betrayed his brother, appeared to be shooting up – quite out of character.  In fact, he was drawing blood, presenting this and the needle to his father as evidence of Edgar’s attack. When father and son were finally reconciled after his blinding, Edgar hauled his broken father onto his back, then lit up and maliciously blew smoke into his face.  In a bleak irony, they shared the only moment of joyful family companionship in the play as they staggered around the stage together, stoned.

Unable to understand the language, it was the production’s visual effects that repeatedly engaged me.  Kent slipped into his disguise by unfolding his legs from beneath him and suddenly being able to walk.  The King of France, an ancient, bent old man was performed by a young woman.  She reappeared later as France – now a sexy female cabaret singer, singing the battle news to the audience (perhaps suggesting that all this death and suffering was in a day’s entertainment?).  One of the tensest moments was the onstage blinding, in which Goneril and Regan, now dressed in the furs and heels of the nouveau riche, leant over the bound Gloucester and appeared to suck his eyes out.  When they stood up, two orbs of black ink behind his glasses had turned them to a blind man’s shades.  The women opened their mouths slightly and black ink, like blood, edged their lips and discoloured their tongues.

Keren Zaiontz of the University of Roehampton, has reviewed the production for the Year of Shakespeare blog and the Globe to Globe blog.  She argues that Belarus Free Theatre’s ‘Surface halts the production of tragic feeling but it opens the possibility for experimentation with stage signs.’

To an extent I agree, except that I have never thought that King Lear explored the ‘pathos’ of a ‘king without a kingdom’ falling from ‘greatness’ into madness.  In my reading of it, any former greatness lies far outside of the parameters of Shakespeare’s play, or at most, at the edges of Gloucester and Kent’s memories.   Which reminds me, Gloucester’s wheelchair had been nagging at me throughout the production.  Where had I seen it before?  Then the comparison came to me during the second half of the production – intentionally or not, BFT’s Lear was Endgame, as close to Beckett as to Shakespeare, a Theatre of the Absurd…  And that is a place where there is no catharsis in the tragedy.

This is certainly what a fellow groundling, Laura, felt: ‘It was brilliant, yes, but I hated it.  It was so, so bleak.  There was no glimmer of hope anywhere, no moments of tenderness or compassion.’

‘What about Cordelia’s kiss?’ said @Shaksper.  ‘For a moment she came alive and forgave him.’

‘No she didn’t! She killed him with that kiss!  Can’t you see it was her kiss that killed him?’ Laura insisted.

Because Cordelia had been killed onstage, hung by her pearls, her dress coming down to expose her breasts as the guards pulled on her kicking legs, Andrew Dickson, in his otherwise admiring review in the Guardian, concludes that this ‘reduces the impact of this most brutal and shocking of acts, and makes a nonsense of Lear’s entrance with her body’.  Yet, as I said earlier, this is a production that works against expectations and the text.  The reason why we have to see the hanging is because we also have to see Lear, finally broken, curl up into the foetal position at the back of the stage as he lets his daughter be murdered.  Thus, one reading could be that Cordelia’s apparent resurrection was only to take vampiric revenge on the father who rejected her. Another could be that, her father revealed at last as no more than a weak, frail, old man, she  released him from his failure and despair.

What all reviewers and audience agreed on, however, was the ‘formal daring and experimentation’, especially in the magnificent use the company made of plastic tarpaulin…

(c) Stephen Kane

Spread out on the stage, the ousted Lear stood in the middle as buckets of water were thrown at him.  Actors around the edge began to agitate the sheet, swooshing water and sound, louder and louder until a children’s game became a raging representation of the play’s central, elemental storm, the noise and wind spreading beyond the stage and engulfing the audience.  Then Lear was standing on a chair behind it, and the sheet rose up, as if it would ‘drench our steeples, and drown the cocks’.

In the second half, this simple stage trick was used again.  This time the tarpaulin was bright red, cloaking the characters until it totally enclosed them.  The battle took place within, a deep red ball of death, like something from a particularly violent Manga, the punches being thrown from inside at the sheeting horribly magnified in the acoustics of the Globe. Afterwards, Edmund crawled across it, pulling at the limbs that had escaped its covering.  First he found Goneril, but Regan tempted him with a freshly boiled potato, taking us full circle.

Which brings us back to the topic of money and international politics.  At the end of the performance, Natalia climbed onto a bench.

‘We get no subsidy from our government,’ she mocked, and reminded us that the KGB were still at large in Belarus.  Anyone who is old enough to remember the Cold War will know that the KGB are the enemies of freedom and democracy…

And so we threw our coins into their buckets, asking no more questions.  King Lear had convinced us.**

To find out more about the Belarus Free Theatre, see this documentary, made for Al Jazeera’s Witness strand.

* This Eastern European company started out with Sarah Kane.  They premiered with 4.48 Psychosis, which according to their Facebook page, deals with “depression and suicide –– two themes that are taboo in state-controlled Belarusian art.”

** Once again, it’s interesting to note that, ‘banned’ can mean different things in different contexts.  I saw several apparently ‘banned’ films whilst in China in the early 90s, not only on bootleg VCDs, but openly at the local cinema, such as Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine.  My students joked that the government liked to temporarily ban the films of Fifth Generation directors to ensure they won the prizes at big international film festivals….

Whose memory is it anyway?

Tanya Gerstle, University of Melbourne

Interdisciplinary Black Box Workshop, Thursday 7th of June, 2012, University of York

Black Box at the University of York

A black box theatre; a dozen or so performers improvise. We have been given certain ‘colours’: walking, running, stopping, falling. So we run, walk, stop, fall, gradually synchronising step with each other, attuned to the movement of the group, the sounds, the silences, the shapes in the space.

I sit down to spectate and catch my breath, surveying the scene that I have just been a part of. In one corner a woman reads Israeli poetry in English. I know it’s Israeli because the poet pronounces her name Channa, and the dates in her poem – 1942, 48, 67, 73 – turn the falling bodies into dead bodies in front of my eyes. A tall young man duets with her, his countertenor bringing in strains of late mediaeval church music. Two people sit on chairs centre stage. A young girl in a bright green top begins to crawl between them, her long, black hair hanging loose. Time passes. I’m on stage again, sitting on one of the chairs. Tian, the Chinese girl in green, and Channa, the Israeli poet, are kneeling in front of me. Tian is playing with a shadow puppet. She speaks softly in Mandarin as her gilded puppet glides over to comfort Channa who is praying in Hebrew. At least, I think she is praying. The tall young man in a white top is now standing on the other chair, still singing in his strange, high voice. The director, Tanya, comes up behind me. ‘Where were you during Tiananmen?’ she whispers. ‘Can you remember?’ I nod. ‘Go to the microphone and tell us,’ she prompts.

I go the microphone, acutely aware of Tian, kneeling centre stage, head bowed, playing with her puppet. She is completely oblivious of what I am about to say. ‘1989…’ I falter. ‘1989. I’m an undergraduate in London. I’m standing outside of the Chinese Embassy. Many of us are standing there.’ I can see it in my head at the same time as I see the black box around me. I glance sideways at Tian and wonder if she is listening to me or if she is concentrating on the story she is telling in a language nobody else in the room can understand. I don’t think she can hear me, and I continue. ‘I remember the images on our television screens of the students, the images of the students demonstrating in Tiananmen Square. There is a young man in a white shirt, standing there, clutching a white plastic bag. He is stopping the tank. In 1989. In Tiananmen Square.’ The eccentric, white-topped countertenor on the chair sings on, above us all. Tian’s puppet continues to dance. I step away from the microphone. The walking, running, stopping, falling starts all over again.

Afterwards, we sat in a circle and deconstructed our performance. Mary Luckhurst, one of the TFTV lecturers, had come in half way through. ‘What were you saying when I came in?’ she asked. ‘Was it a memory?’ Yes, it was a memory. My memory. Afterwards she stopped me by the door. ‘That was extraordinary,’ she said. ‘I walked in and this man was singing, and these two women were kneeling, and Tian was there playing with her puppet, this young Chinese girl, and then you spoke. Suddenly everything changed, and it became about that moment, it became about Tiananmen Square.’ And of course that was Tanya Gerstle’s intention. She too had seen something dark and symbolic in Tian’s crawling across the stage, although for all I know, Tian was just being a cat. Through that young Chinese body, Tanya’s memory was stirred by what is, for all Westerners over a certain age, the over-riding image of contemporary China. She shared that memory with me, I shared it with Mary, and together the director, the author, the performers, the spectator/auditor all brought them together to create a narrative that spoke truth to power.

(c) H Graem

But what of Tian? What did she see? What did she think of her role in this dramatization of a collective memory? Was there any truth in it for her? She wasn’t even born in 1989, and in China it’s only the Mothers of Tiananmen and a few others who bring that image of tank and student to mind when they think of that place. Most of the other billion Chinese have moved on, and it’s not for me to judge here whether that is good or bad. Tiananmen Square is a place of jubilation – the place of spontaneous celebrations when China won the Olympic bid – and a place of relaxation, for a stroll across the nation’s public space, amidst the kite-flyers and the old ladies practicing Tai-Chi, with the hawkers selling souvenirs or offering to take a photo in front of the guards on their little pedestals, who like the Queen’s Guards at Buckingham Palace, are not allowed to smile at anything or anyone.

Globe to Globe’s Polish ‘Macbeth’: no sex please, we’re British.

Shakespeare’s Makbet directed by Maja Kleczewska and performed by Kochanowski Theatre, Globe to Globe, Tuesday 8th May 2012: Matinee

Co się stało, to już się nie odstanie

‘What’s done is done.’

Dingy bedsits, run-down nightclubs, Macbeth as a hoody, the witches as transgender sex-workers: this was the world of Maja Kleczewska’s appropriation of the Scottish Play, or maybe it would be more appropriate to call it the Contemporary Polish Underworld Play.  And the Poles do contemporary-underworld-meets-Shakespeare extremely well.  If it was in English, it would doubtless have been dubbed the Chav Macbeth. In fact, a friend of mine, David Hurley, is reminded of the 1997 project in Birmingham, Macbeth on the Estate, which he had recently watched on Youtube from his home in Japan.

I will survive (c) Konachowski Theatre

Before the performance began, Macbeth and Banquo slouched, exhausted, in two beat-up armchairs.  I was sitting in the middle gallery so I also had an excellent view of the witches, if that’s what they really were, in  flamboyant wigs, skin-tight leggings or transparent negligees,  ‘working’ the groundlings in a clever interpretation of original practices, offering their wares… Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth in a grubby t-shirt and knickers, clearly depressed, crawled onto the large bed downstage and pulled a blanket over her head, ignoring the men.  The rest of the show would follow this pattern: high kitsch and outrageous humour alongside a dark, disturbing soullessness. When the prophecies were given, it was as if they were sexual favours (one witch in particular was taken with Banquo) and it was clear that anything that came true would be down to mere chance: these witch/women were marginalised in the extreme, and had no real agency for all their desperate feather boa panache.

There were notices all over the entrances to the theatre warning us that the production would contain strong adult content, and the people who had bought an Olympian ticket for all 37 Globe to Globe performances had been sent letters reiterating this.  School groups were, apparently, asked to stay away (Macbeth is frequently studied at secondary school) and when I had booked my own ticket over the phone I had to assure the box office several times that, yes, I really did want to see it.  ‘It’s ok,’ I eventually said, ‘I have seen Polish theatre before – I know what to expect!’

Duncan comes to stay (c) John Haynes

It wasn’t long before Duncan, some sort of Gangster King in silver sparkly shoes, turned up with his entourage of petty criminals and sex-workers, and took over the Macbeths’ bedsit.  The two school teachers in the lower gallery who had defied the warnings and brought along a bunch of teenagers, blushed deep crimson as a drag queen mooned the audience – much to their charges’ delight. There were many other comic or light touches that I knew wouldn’t stay comic or light for long.  A witch mimed to Gloria Gaynor’s queer anthem, ‘I will survive’.  Macduff (the cartel’s accountant, perhaps?) brought along his briefcase and family: his peroxide blonde trophy wife downed vodkas as she pushed a pram to the beat of the music, whilst his two little daughters (not sons) peeked out from under the drinks tables and laughed at the adults along with the audience.  At one point Macbeth mocked the Globe pigeons and a pigeon obligingly flew across the auditorium.  And after Duncan’s murder, Macbeth slipped on those sparkly shoes like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. There was also fine acting and clever references, most of which I didn’t entirely understand, but the Polish audience around me did  – and that was sort of the point.  I met a friend after the performance. Aneta Mancewitz, a Polish researcher into Shakespeare appropriation, who is currently based at the Central School of Speech and Drama.  Whilst many British observers still remained slightly puzzled at this stage by the Globe to Globe Festival, worrying in online newspaper review comments sections whether it ‘could be Shakespeare without Shakespeare’s language’, Aneta  summed up what it was really about for the majority non-Anglo audiences:  ‘This is amazing!’ she said. ‘I don’t know what I feel about it.  I mean, on the one hand, there are all these English people here, and I’m thinking, oh no, this is what they’ll think we’re like in Poland, with bad hair and ugly clothes and drinking vodka all the time! But then, on the other hand… you don’t know what it is to hear Shakespeare spoken in Polish, here, in this space, on the Globe stage.  It’s just so amazing!’

Macbeth is King (c) John Haynes

As for me, I didn’t need to know the cultural references to get that the production was a bitter satire on contemporary Polish society, but Tony Howard of the University of Warwick has helpfully put it in context anyway: ‘ this production dates originally from 2004 and was a very precise reaction to the cultural condition of Poland in the post-communist age. Duncan became the head of a mafia network which is very close to the empire of the country’s most notorious criminal , Adrzej Kolikowski (nicknamed Pershing). He was murdered by his enemies in 1999 while on holiday (in Zakopane, not Dunsinane) after a violent career that involved ‘investments’ in drugs and nightclubs.’ (Guardian Comments). His colleague, Paul Prescott has written a vibrant review of this production in the context of New EuroShakespeare on the Year of Shakespeare blog.

Yet by the interval I still hadn’t been too shocked.  The warnings seemed over the top, and if I’m completely honest, I felt a little disappointed on this front.  Where was the promised adult content that so threatened to corrupt the nation’s schoolchildren?  As I said, I’d seen Polish theatre before, and in the interval I bumped into somebody else I knew who had. Retired English teacher, Joan, who I had met at the Worldwide Hamlet conference in Romania two years ago, said enthusiastically:  ‘Is this the same play we saw in Craiova?  You know which one I mean – the one with all the blood?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘That was Monika Pęcikiewicz ’s Hamlet.’

‘Oh, yes, I remember  now: Ophelia murdered in a bathtub  full of blood, wasn’t it? Well, I’m looking forward to see what they’re going to do with the second half of this one.’

Child Macduff (c) John Haynes

We settled back into our seats and, while everyone waited for the end of interval bell to toll, the little Macduff girls ran back onto the stage with bubble guns.  The rainbow bubbles blew out across the audience, glistening in the weak springtime sun, and I thought, no, please, not this.

Two little girls ran about the stage laughing. Lady Macduff followed them on in a short, see-through nightie, still pushing that pram and now nervously chain-smoking, too. ‘Lady Macduff worries while her husband is in England’ read the surtitle, in ironic understatement. For the longest time, the audience could see Macbeth’s henchmen, Lennox and Ross, watching this little family group from backstage through the beaded curtain, biding their time.  Then they ran on, donning Mickey Mouse masks, and dragged the children offstage screaming. Ross came back on, unmasked, and engaged Lady Macduff in a slow dance.  And then he raped her.  Face down on the floor. It went on and on and on and on, centre stage. Lennox strangled the baby in the pram. Hardly a drop of blood was spilled in the Macduff Family Murder. I glanced over at the school party and saw two of the boys in the front row look as if they had been crying.  The girls had retreated a few rows further back.  The teachers looked sick. There was no more giggling as Lady Macbeth committed suicide after what appeared to be a miscarriage or her broken husband dragged her body around the floor.  He made no attempt to fight off his enemies and his shiny shoes came off easily.

Well, it wasn’t quite that bleak.  When Birnham wood came to Dunsinane, the soldiers were jokily dressed in leafy camouflage. Ripping off their jackets to reveal ‘The Birnhamskis’ t-shirts, the show ended in a rave.  In the performance I saw, Macduff was among them, but so was his wife.  She danced downstage and flicked her peroxide locks victoriously. The transgender prostitute led everyone in ‘I will survive’, although now the song wasn’t quite so pop culture kitsch… See Shekspir’s blog for an alternative reading of this ending, however.

It was a powerful production, so I was surprised at some of the negativity of the Anglophone response.  Michael Billington’s review in the Guardian was just a little lazy.  He wasn’t moved by the pop culture references, he wrote.  He’d seen other Polish theatre and didn’t like this one as much, but he didn’t seem to think he needed to expand on this for his readers in any significant way.  He had also not tried to find out anything about the mise-en-scene, and in a reaction that mirrored that of the conservatives in the Polish Catholic Church, dismissed the sexual abuse of one of the witches when new king pimp Macbeth forced her to go down on him in front of his wife as: a ‘transvestite whore […] assiduously fellates the new monarch as Lady Macbeth looks on’.

“And then he rapes her”
(c) John Haynes

But why was this adaptation, well-respected in its native Poland, and hugely appreciated by its Polish speaking audiences here, problematic for some of the non-Polish speaking audiences at the Globe?  It was certainly the most controversial production of the festival, generating heated debate and opposing views. For example, in a statement from Christy Carson during her keynote talk at the Globe to Globe Intercultural Shakespeare Symposium  the next week, she burst out with ‘well, maybe that’s what they do in Poland!’ as the afore-mentioned Polish theatre academic who was sitting next to me raised a surprised eyebrow.  What was interesting was that Carson assumed that the room would share her sentiment; after all, Shakespearean actor Harriet Walters did, who according to Carson ‘didn’t want to criticize Polish theatre, but…’.  Carson is a critic I admire and respect, tactful and open-minded. So why this reaction here? It appeared that both women were shocked, disgusted and offended by the sex in this production.  Neither are Mary Whitehouse figures, and I doubt if they minded the pop-culture references or sex-worker witches, so I imagine that their objections were based on feminist grounds rather than traditionalist morality.  Like Diana Owen commenting on Prescott’s review, it was the ‘gratuitous and graphic’ rape of Lady Macduff that upset them. Strangely, Owen felt this ‘betrayed a deeply misogynistic undercurrent to this whole production.’ I say strangely for two reasons.  The first is because Maja Kleczewska is one of Poland’s up-and-coming female directors, whose work, like Pęcikiewicz’s, appears to return repeatedly to the violent abuse of women as a metaphor for the contemporary Polish condition.  Both women are drawn in their productions to the figure of Electra and the world of Sarah Kane, but extend this vision beyond the personal.  (Kleczewska’s other works include Electra, the Oresteia and Kane’s Blasted.) The second reason that I take a different position from Owen, Carson and Walter’s opinion is  because I think the onstage rape was necessary.  Distasteful, ugly, sick and troubling, perhaps, but for me, any other outcome tha Lady Macduff’s rape in this context is to be naively hopeful. In fact, Nancy Meckler’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the RSC last year made me angry for this very reason.  She, too, opened with a Kray-like gangster mise-en-scene foregrounding the abuse of Hyppolyta and the other women, yet after Hyppolyta became Titania in the woods, Athens became a place of wedding bliss, Hyppolyta a smiling bride with flowers in her hair, and all vestiges of sex trafficking inexplicably magicked away.  The mise-en-scene was only there titillate, and the RSC didn’t have the courage to shock for a purpose.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (c) John Haynes

Michael Billington used the word xenophobia in a follow-up review, so I will use it here.  I certainly don’t think Carson et alia are xenophobic – in fact, they are the opposite – but are our ways of seeing, wherever we come from, conditioned by our preconceived stereotypes of gender relations in particular cultures? If we in the old Cold War West think that Eastern European society as a whole is misogynistic, does that (mis)inform our reading? Alternatively, does knowing that a director is female not male and that she has an artistic and political agenda in her depiction of male/female, straight/Queer dynamics make a difference? I would argue that Kleczewsta interrogates misogynism and homophobia rather than propogates them. However, if I hadn’t actively been researching the work of post-modern Polish Shakespeare appropriation at the time that I saw the production, would I have come to different conclusions?

Paradoxically, when Christy Carson made her comments, the Globe to Globe blog was open behind her: ‘Murder. Rape. Mutilation. Cannibalism.’ screamed the tagline for Titus Andronicus.

On a final note, as I left Shakespeare’s Globe after Kochanowski Theatre’s Makbet, I passed the school party in the foyer.  They seemed to have survived the ordeal and were now talking animatedly in what sounded like Polish to my beginner’s ear.

Tom Bird, the festival director, had a brilliant and daring vision in this Globe to Globe festival, not only to invite Shakespeare in other linguistic languages, but to let many companies speak in their own cultural language, too, even if that meant the minority Anglophone audience might not get it.

(My review of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (directed by Monika Pęcikiewicz) for the Polski Theatre (Wroclaw) is published in the journal Shakespeare, Volume 8, Issue 4, 2012, available by clicking here)