From Gdańsk, with love… for Europe and Shakespeare

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By Janice Valls-Russell

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Cranes are – along with spires and towers – part of the Gdańsk cityscape. The harbour had a man-powered crane back in the Middle Ages, to unload cargo in this busy Hanseatic harbour, long before the steel monsters we associate with the city’s shipyards and their politically charged history. Today, building cranes on the skyline illustrate the city’s expansive energy. When I reached the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre for the opening ceremony, cranes were up at the back and front of the chocolate brick, chest-like building, with construction-site barriers closing off the premises. A couple of old-fashioned wooden ladders were propped up against the walls. Inside, the building smelt of fresh paint, plaster and new wood.

2014-09-20 15.48.00 copyThe theatre was completed five weeks and five days after the first stone was laid, and opened on September 19, 2014. The site on which it is built, outside the old city walls, but very much inside today’s Gdańsk, is at the crossroads of local, Polish, European and indeed world history: this is where, some 400 years ago, travelling players from England regularly performed in a wooden, unroofed building, the Fencing School, which also hosted fencing classes and bear baiting. A narrow passage in the basement of the theatre marks the exact location where remains of the old building were found some years ago, under what was then a car-park in the shadow of the ominous National Security building, a stone’s throw from the site of a synagogue destroyed by Nazis.

This theatre is the brainchild of Polish Shakespeare scholar Jerzy Limon, given local habitation by the Italian architect Renato Rizzi. Jurek, as Limon is known to his friends, enlisted help across the social, political and artistic board, from Prince Charles, who accepted to be the project’s honorary patron, to film director Andrzej Wajda. This wide range of support was apparent on the opening night, with the presence of Poland’s Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, the Archbishop, Sławoj Głodź, and the British Ambassador, Robin Barnett, who brought the house to its feet when he announced that Limon had been awarded an honorary Order of the British Empire by the Queen. Shakespearean actors, directors and scholars from around the world were also present.

This theatre is a tribute to local energy and talents as well as European knowhow, vision and funding. The patron is British, the architect Italian, the dark brick Belgian, the marble floor Bulgarian, the roof Spanish. The beech wood used for the galleries and floor is Polish, as are the contractor’s expertise and builders’ skills. The funding (23 million euros) came jointly from Europe (75%) and Gdańsk (25%).

From the outside, the theatre looks like a half-sunken chest, ribbed with buttresses that recall the original building. The contrast when you step inside is all the greater: a foyer with white walls, ivory marble stairs and floor, opening straight into the rectangular auditorium, with a floor and galleries on three levels in pale beech, pearl-grey leather seats and a black-and-white roof.

The opening ceremony began on a black proscenium stage. In the course of the evening, the theatre revealed its versatility: the proscenium stage can thrust forward, shrink back to a narrower space, sink down to floor level, open out as a pit, or become a seating area. The stalls can be folded and rolled away under the galleries, leaving a large open space for a full thrust stage, performance in the round, or a vast expanse for a wide range of events. The roof opens up like the two flaps of a box (flaps that weigh some forty tons each!) for open-air performances. Seeing this happen was a momentous experience for all those present.2014-09-20 15.49.18 copy

The Shakespeare Festival has been taking place every year in Gdańsk for some twenty years and demonstrated that bringing the players to town and attracting audiences will not be a challenge. Gdańsk is firmly on the map of European festivals, and a member of the European Shakespeare Festivals network. The greater challenge, perhaps, will be to ensure ongoing funding for maintenance: the complex technology (there were a few minor hitches during the opening ceremony) and fine interiors will require continuous, loving attention from highly skilled staff.

The inauguration ceremony lasted more than five hours. In a video address, the Prince of Wales noted how fitting it was that the project should be completed in the year marking the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, thereby illustrating the “continuity of European culture”, and he expressed “heartfelt wishes for the success of a long held dream within this wooden O”. The rest of the ceremony, engagingly hosted by a popular TV personality, Grażyna Torbicka, and directed by the Gdańsk designer-director Andrzej Markowicz, resembled some kind of Shakespearean medley. Colourful, beautifully choreographed tableaux were evocative of Shakespeare’s world (fairies, lovers, duels, Hamlet) while paying tribute to various forms of spectacle, from ballet and mime revisitings of commedia dell’arte to circus arts. One of the highlights, reminiscent of Cleopatra’s Egypt and Shakespearean banqueting scenes, was the buffet which rose from the depths of the stage, complete with mini palm-trees, pyramids of canapés and a live, immobile sphinx-like figure.

Speeches were kept short, brisk and humorous. The prime minister confessed to having had severe moments of doubt about the whole project and raised laughs when he said that everything in Shakespeare about politics is “absolutely true”. Jerzy Limon anatomized his deepening “madness” as he embarked on this project, wrote to Prince Charles, under-estimated administrative red tape, and assured the prime minister that the theatre would open while he was still in office. Inaugurating the theatre was in fact one of Tusk’s last functions as Prime Minister, before becoming President of the European Council.

The timing of the inauguration was not irrelevant. Barely three weeks earlier, Gdańsk was remembering the start of World War Two 75 years ago (the first shots were fired on the outskirts of the city, and Hitler stayed at nearby Sopot before marching his troops on Warsaw) and inaugurating the European Solidarity Centre, which retraces the decisive contribution of the Solidarnosc movement 25 years ago to freedom and peace. Over and beyond the excitement that the building of a new theatre generates, the “long held dream within this wooden O” is the vibrant expression of an outward-looking engagement with peace and global culture, strongly anchored in the local community: the theatre’s agenda is not only to keep on bringing players to Gdańsk but also to offer a theatre space for experimental theatre and other forms of live arts, to expand interaction with audiences across the social spectrum.

These aspirations were illustrated in the final tableaux of the opening night, which took place outside the theatre. The building itself became one gigantic set: the walls were scaled by players (hence those ladders). Then trapezists in flowing wispy white costumes were raised up invisible cables, from both the outside and the inside (through the open roof) of the theatre into the night sky. They hovered high above us, like so many stars. We should have known Jurek and Gdańsk better: those ladders and cranes were there with a dramatic purpose, as an ethical reminder that defending the arts and reaching out to audiences requires constant scaling of obstacles, building and re-building of dreams against all odds. Dziękuję! Thank you!

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Author:Janice Valls-Russell

Janice Valls-Russell is research assistant employed by the French National Centre for Scientific Research at Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier (France).
  • Mobile App Development Delhi

    Nice post, Critical things are explained in details. I appreciate it. Thanks.

  • drdaoverton

    Congratulations! -and I hope that my resource http://www.iHearShakespeare.org might be of use to some of your constituents!

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