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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