16th Gdansk Shakespeare Festival 2012: Festiwal Szekspirowski

(These posts from my summer research trips to Gdansk, Edinburgh, and Katowice/Krakow/Warsaw, will have  links and pictures added on my return to the UK! I’m at the mercy of portable technology…)

I arrived on Friday the 27th July in the beautiful Baltic city of Gdansk (home of Hamlet’s Danskers, perhaps? Or his Pollacks on the ice). It was summer festival season, and the city was bustling with visitors to the famous St Dominic’s Fair, which dates back many centuries.  In fact, it was during this fair that the English Players first came to Gdansk in the 17th Century, bringing the plays of Shakespeare with them.  I felt honoured to be sitting in a Polish cafe, chatting with Anna Szynkaruk-Zgirska, the festival promotion organisor, and Prof Jerzy Limon, the festival’s founder – and also its visionary.  ‘That was the inspiration for this festival,’ Jerzy said.  ‘Just as the English Players came every year to Gdansk, so we wanted to revise the tradition, but this time bring players from many countries and also the best of Polish Shakespeare.’ ‘Yes,’ said Anna. ‘And each year we hold a Shakespeare competition for the best Polish production.  The winner gets a Golden Yorick!’ I was slightly disappointed that this award was not actually a golden skull, but it is suitably prestigious nevertheless! This year’s festival (the 16th!) appeared to be dominated by Hamlets and Tempests.  (As the summer weather swings from blazing sunshine to sudden storms, it has been useful to learn the Polish word burza from the title of Shakespeare’s last play…) Productions were varied. A heavy, dark, classically modernist Hamlet from Macedonia opened the festival. An hour-long Amleto by a prima donna director who didn’t like the concept of an audience followed.  Needless to say, we couldn’t actually get in to see it, as it started 3 minutes early and he ordered the doors to be barred and bolted against those half dozen of of us who deigned to arrive at the last minute (5.59!). The poor ushers were extremely embarrassed. Yet this disappointment was cancelled out by half a dozen other exciting productions.  Strangely, one of the most moving was a communal listenings to an award-winning Polish Radio production of Hamlet. Sitting in a darkened room with about forty other people, I was transported into a Slavic imagining of Elsinore, even though I don’t speak any Polish.  Admittedly, I know the play well, and because this production was only one and a half hours long, it concentrated on the major plot lines.  However, there was not one moment in which I felt lost.  Guided by music, subtle inflections of voice, and sound effects that would make the BBC stereophonic workshop green with envy, I was gripped by the drama from the crashing waves of its opening, instantly evoking Kozinstev’s classic film, to the scraping fencing foils and shifting sounds of bodies in motion of the final duel between Hamlet and Laertes.  There was also feminist street theatre on Shakespeare’s women, captivating both genders across in the multi-generational audience of friends and family and passers-by that gathered to watch them outside the Two Window Theatre, and a multi-media rock production of Macbeth, perhaps referencing the Polish experience of the Iraq war, and in which the rather sexy witches writhed around in an abattoir and engaged in lesbian kissing… And that was just the first three days.  What was striking was that, apart from the Radio Production, there was a complete absence of anything resembling traditional interpretation. Jerzy laughed. ‘This is European theatre,’ he said, ‘The text is the pre-text – to engage with pop culture, to speak about modern Poland, or to explore the director’s sense of self.  You know, if we put on a traditional production, that would be shocking! Here the avant-garde has become the mainstream!’ This was backed-up by the Radio Director: ‘Radio theatre is the only place where we can put on the classics as classics‘, he said in a post-production talk. Other productions which I was particularly looking forward to were Maja Kleczewska’s Burza/Tempest (I saw her Macbeth at the Globe), Bogomolov’s Russian Lear, a Comedy, which inverts the genders of the principle characters, and our very own Parrabolla’s production of The Winter’s Tale, in which the British based theatre worked with community theatres in the Czech Republic to put on a production which quite literally crossed geographic space.

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Globe to Globe Lithuanian ‘Hamlet’: The Prince of Rock and Ice

Hamlet directed by Eimuntas Nekrosius and performed by Meno Fortas, Globe to Globe Festival, 2nd June 2012: Matinee 

Horatio and Hamlet (c) John Haynes

This was a cold, wet production, and not only because it was performed on an open stage in an English June…    A man came on in heavy, enormous furs, like a huge lumbering bear emerging from a wintry Northern forest. He threw back his head and revealed that he was actually two men.  Freezing drops of water dripped from a chandelier made of ice attached to a round, rusting saw blade, heavy with chains. Ice turned to water, and water filled goblets as big as fish bowls.  Ophelia played at fishes with her father and brother, her praying hands darting like minnows instead of remembering their orisons. In a dark production of blacks, greys, browns, blood reds and deep, deep purples, her emerald green dress stood out like pond weed in murky waters.  Ophelia, the green girl.

Ophelia was fun, playful, and a little bit goofy.  In fact, everyone was a little bit goofy, especially her father.  I think they might all have been mad. Had the lunatics taken over the asylum?

Ultra-cool Hamlet dominated the stage like an aging rock star.  But he was an aging rock-star, Lithuania’s answer to Bono!  When he was first asked to play Hamlet fifteen years ago he was a young rebel.  Now, perhaps, he’ll continue that tradition, with Kemble and Booth, of playing him past middle age into his twilight years…

(C) Meno Fortas

Claudius did not have a share in the glory, nor in the audience’s empathy, as he often does in Western productions now, and his new wife was a nobody, peripheral.  Gertrude never held the stage like Ophelia. I doubt if anyone ever intended her to.  When Ophelia drowned, however, she showed real agency, diving into the water and swimming to her death.

The ice, smashed, melted, and dripped, staining the Globe stage like blood. A giant bird – formed from two black screens that belonged in a black box, not an open air, reconstructed Renaissance theatre – flew across the stage on a man’s back like a prehistoric harbinger of death. The Old Ghost was Young Fortinbras.  The hand of anyone who touched him turned black. That ‘stain’ was passed from character to character during the play-within-the-play.  When Claudius asked Hamlet how they should understand ‘The Mousetrap’, Hamlet answered ‘Metaphorically!’

It was a strange, visual stream of consciousness: images and references that I could not understand, but that I did not need to.

The actors never once looked out at the audience, or if they did, they failed to see us.  It was not that they were acting to an invisible fourth wall; they were enclosed in a strange imaginary fishbowl world where they would live and die, perhaps senselessly.

Britain’s contribution to the Globe to Globe Festival was Henry V, which opened the Globe’s own summer season.  However, as there was a gap of nearly a week between this performance and the two-companies-daily pattern of the previous six weeks, and because, for me at least, there was a sense that Shakespeare in English did not really count, Nekrosius’ Hamlet felt like the last play in the Globe to Globe Festival. This monumental production from Lithuania managed to both give weight to the centrality of this play in the European canon, yet to also illustrate how Shakespeare as a cultural product emigrated across the channel many years ago and took on global citizenship.  Hamlet in particular seems to be most at home anywhere but here.  As repeatedly illustrated in Dennis Kennedy’s pioneering edited collection of essays, Foreign Shakespeare, which was first published shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this play speaks to societies in transition and trauma in a language we in England can no longer fully understand. Hamlet was banned by Stalin, and Kozintzev’s 1964 film was a savage critique of his personality cult, as well as a brave testing of the post-Stalin thaw.

But all of that was a very long time ago.  Even the initial post-communist years of this production’s genesis belongs to many people’s childhood memories.  For example, I was sitting next to two young Lithuanian women in the Globe.  They had travelled from Manchester and Leeds, where they were living, just to see this production.

(c) John Haynes

‘We’ve never been to the Globe before, but we had to see this.  Hamlet performed in Lithuanian in Shakespeare’s theatre! And the director is very, very famous in our home country, you know.  We think that’s him, sitting over there.’  They point to a bearded man in late middle age sitting next to a tall blonde woman. ‘I expect that’s his wife,’ one of them said, the older one.  Then she paused. ‘But that’s not the only reason we came… The actor who plays Hamlet, Andrius Mamontovas, he is a huge rock-star in Lithuania.’

‘He was very big back in the early 90s,’ said the other. ‘My older sister was really into him.’

‘Not just the 90s,’ the other said. ‘He’s still famous now, and not only my age group like him.  He’s like Bono!  Well, he’s like Bono in Lithuania, anyway!  But we came here for the Shakespeare, too, and to visit the Globe. But why did you come? And what did you think?’

See my comment (no 3, below) to see how my thoughts were confirmed, developed – and in one case (Ophelia’s death) completely changed when I watched this again on The Space.

Globe to Globe ‘Comedy of Errors’ from Afghanistan: Carry On Kabul

Comedy of Errors in Dari Persian, directed by Corinne Jabber and performed by Roy-E-Sabs, Globe to Globe Festival, Thursday 31st May: Evening

حالا دست در

دست برویم نه

پشت به پشت

‘Let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.’
 
*Comments are reconstructed from memory and not recorded verbatim.

*’One of the paradoxes of doing a festival like this is that you end up asking people to tell their own story, and then have to tell them that they can’t do the play of their choice as somebody else is already doing it,’ said Tom Bird, the Globe to Globe festival director, at his talk at their Intercultural Shakespeare Symposium.   ‘Another thing is, that you can’t second guess what play a particular company will feel allows them to tell the story that they want to tell.  For example, we offered the Afghans a choice of history plays.  We thought that they would find that a play about civil war really spoke to the Afghan experience… But they wouldn’t have it. “No, we want to do The Comedy of Errors”, they insisted!’

This until recently little-performed play thus became the Afghan offering, and the director of Roy-e-Sabs had certainly caught the Shakespeare zeitgeist as there have also been two or three high-profile British productions this year, including the National Theatre’s starring comedian-turned-Shakespearian actor, Lenny Henry, and Lucian Msamati, Propeller’s touring production, and the RSC.

From the India Times

I could see why the Afghan company wanted to do this farcical comedy, as it simultaneously flew in the face of preconceptions about ‘The Afghan experience’ whilst, in its darker moments (all three of them!) it still remained true to the realities of contemporary Afghan life .  For example, singing, dancing, drinking and sexual innuendo (lots of seaside postcard innuendo) were all foregrounded and celebrated.  The production opened in music, which is judged un-Islamic by certain, more Puritan schools of thought, and was banned by the Taliban.  The women showed their hair, ironically only covering it as they headed offstage into the play’s ‘outdoors’.  As for the kitchen maid, she was played by a bearded man in drag…   All the characters had been renamed and the action was relocated to contemporary post-war Kabul.  Yet the father Eshan (Egeon in the English) faced a very real death threat for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the two-sets of long-lost brothers had added significance in a  nation where families are torn apart by war. As Andrew Dickson has noted in his Guardian review, even some of the funniest comic moments are ‘uncomfortable’.  For instance, Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio, renamed as Arsalan of Samaqand and his servant Boston, arrived from Uzbekistan in western outfits and panama hats.  Arsalan had expensive leather shoes and Boston sported designer trainers.  They stopped to take photos of themselves on their digital cameras, posing with the ‘locals’: lying down on the stage, Boston put an arm around Groundling Laura.  Then a shopkeeper helpfully suggested that they change their clothes into local garb if they didn’t want to get found out by the authorities.  He handed them  traditional ‘Perahan Tunban’, or baggy trousers and loose, long tunics, which men had to wear by law after the Taliban outlawed western clothes in the 1990s.  However, instead of fearfully changing clothes, the two émigré sophisticates mocked the clothing first – could they both fit into one pair of trousers, for instance?!  The shoes also became a motif throughout, hinting to the various players that all was not as it seemed. Suggested by looks alone, Sordoba was surprised that her husband, Arsalan of Kabul, should suddenly have such good taste in footwear, and Arsalan of Samaqand wondered why his servant would have swapped his trainers for a pair of battered old sandals. (You notice feet when you’re a Groundling).

Thus, mostly, this production was a hoot, in true Carry On style.  Sordoba (Adrianna) pursued the bemused Arsalan of Samaqand with great energy: a younger and slimmer Hattie Jacques, she rubbed her calf up and down his leg whilst he tried to extricate himself.  He was not quite Kenneth Williams, however, as he himself lustily pursued the prudish but ultimately willing Rodaba (Luciana).

Meanwhile, the real Arsalan of Kabul could bluster and rage as much as he liked, but he could not gain entry to his own house, the doors barred and bolted against him.

I say Carry On, but as the director was French, perhaps the flavour was equally that of Gallic farce.  Several productions in this festival involved intercultural exchanges in the creative processes as well as in the audience reception of the shows.

Image of the Courtesan temporarily removed.
 

The highlight for some young Afghans behind me was clearly the appearance of the Courtesan.  Played by the same actress as Rodoba, she had swapped her shalwar kamiz for tight, tight jeans and a red leather jacket, and shimmied across the stage in her high-heeled boots.  Whatever song she was singing (something about zum-zum-zum), the audience clearly knew it and joined in. As she left to uproarious applause, the young people shouted out ‘zum-zum-zum’ again, willing her to come back.  She looked a little surprised, and then obligued.

Much of the comedy, as I have said, was farce and slapstick.  Luce the kitchen maid was a pantomime dame rather than an original practices boy-player.  Yet there were moments of extraordinary emotion as well.  At the very end, in the chaos of the denouement, as all the identities are revealed and all the confusions are cleared up, one recognition stood out.  The Abbess, who had been giving sanctuary to the Samaqands (it’s a long story – you’ll have to watch the play for yourself!) was standing centre stage in her long white robes.  Eshan faced death, because he was rejected by his Kabul son, who he believed was his Samaqand son, and who didn’t recognise him.  He looked up in despair, then met the Abbess’ eyes.  Slowly, slowly they moved towards each other, reached out their arms to each other, then sat quietly on the floor amidst all the commotion as the audience realised that Eshan had found his wife and she realised that she had found her children, and every one realised that all would be well.

The blurb on the performance flyer announced that it wanted to show daily life as it is in the back streets of Kabul, and if this performance is to be believed, it is not so different from the goings-on in many back streets all over the world – early modern Italy, or post-modern London…

Yet that is only partly true.  Roy-E-Sabs rehearsal premises in Kabul came under attack, the company had to rehearse in India, and on BBC Woman’s Hour, one of the actresses revealed how some in her community saw her as no better than a prostitute.

But to that, Roy-E-Sab say zum-zum-zum…

See more on this context in Stephen Purcell’s review on the Shakespeare’s Globe blog.

(c) Shakespeare’s Globe

Interview with cast members.