18th Gdańsk Shakespeare Festival @ Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre, Gdańsk, Poland, 2014Festivals

  • Magdalena Cieślak

XVIII Festiwal Szekspirowski w Gdańsku / 18th Gdańsk Shakespeare Festival

Teatr Szekspirowski / The Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre

Gdańsk, Poland

27 September – 5 October 2014



Reviewed by Magdalena Cieślak

fig. 1 The yard

fig. 1 The yard

This year’s eighteenth edition of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Festival was special for a couple of reasons. The first was its “coming of age” status, as the organizers jokingly commented on the 18th edition. The second was that it was preceded by a British Week, featuring many exciting productions, including the famous global enterprise – Dominic Dromgoole’s Globe to Globe Hamlet. Third reason was that it was accompanied by the ShakespeareOFF festival, offering travesties of Shakespeare’s plays (such as Macbeth – Horror Puppet Showsee my review). And finally, but most importantly, the festival was hosted in the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre, whose long awaited opening took place on September 19th. Unquestionably, the Theatre was this year’s Festival’s most thrilling performer.

Janice Valls-Russell wrote an excellent and detailed report on the history of the Theatre and on the opening ceremony. I would like to add a few personal touches about experiencing the Theatre during the Festival. When at the beginning of my PhD studies I came to Stratford-upon-Avon, I got standing tickets for Michael Boyd’s Henry VI trilogy. I went to the Swan Theatre and spent the whole day there, watching three subsequent parts. I had a standing place in the upper gallery, but for Part 2 moved to the lower gallery for a slightly better view. I had never before seen or experienced theatre like that, and it affected me profoundly. The production was very good, anybody who remembers would surely agree, and the Swan was a magical theatre. I was quite impressionable back then, perhaps, but it was nevertheless a life-changing encounter. To see the play from above, to be suspended, as if, among the roses dangling from the ceiling, and yet to be directly addressed by the actors, who miraculously played to the audience all over the house, was something not to be easily forgotten. The fact that it lasted the whole day only made it better. By the end of the day, emotionally worn out, my legs hurting, I still wanted it to last.

A couple of years later I went to Shakespeare’s Globe to see for myself how it feels to be a groundling, crowding in the pit and leaning on the stage. It was lovely, with the noise and the closeness of fellow groundlings, but nowhere near the force of the Swan experience.

And then the Gdańsk Theatre happened. In July this summer, I saw a play in the yard of the nearly finished theatre. I loved the building’s raw shape, the darkness of the brick, and the simplicity of its refined aesthetics (fig. 1). I couldn’t wait to see what’s inside. I came for the Festival and got tickets for Jan Klata’s Hamlet. We all waited in the main hall before the show. For a moment I was worried that I expected too much. I needn’t have worried. The Theatre was better than anything I had imagined.

fig. 2 The auditorium

fig. 2 The auditorium

The auditorium is very spacious and bright, yet because it is made of wood it feels cozy, smelling beautifully of a mixture of wood and novelty. There are very simple benches with comfy cushions in the galleries, but people complain that you can only lean against the legs of people sitting behind you. The pit area is a luxury, with neat leather seats (fig. 2). I was the privileged “groundling”, sitting in the second row. The cherry on the cake is the roof, beautifully lit and looking proud and promising. When it does open, the effect is breathtaking.

During the interval I started roaming the halls and passages of the theatre. It is maze-like, with narrow staircases, mysterious passageways, secret doors, and very little information on where you are (fig. 3). Even the tiny signs for elevators or bathrooms are slightly puzzling (fig. 4). Also wooden and brightly lit, like the auditorium, the labyrinthine halls make you feel like the theatre wants you to linger there, and to take your time to simply walk about, without the imperative to know where you are or where you’re going (fig. 5). Quite a feeling for a theatre.

Someone drew my attention to a note next to the box office.

fig. 3 The maze

fig. 3 The maze

It was a response to complains from the audience about uncomfortable seats in the galleries and limited visibility in some areas. The note explained in detail the specificity of Elizabethan stage and the technical problems arising when a production for a box stage is brought to this theatre. It ended by asking patience of the audience explaining that the theatre is new and that the staff are only getting to know it. I say, let’s not tame this theatre. New as it is, it already has a soul, and as the audience we better open up and let this place teach us something new.


fig. 4 The elevator sign

fig. 4 The elevator sign

I believe Professor Jerzy Limon and his crew gave us something magnificent. I wish all theatre goers the thrill and the pleasure of going to a theatre and being amazed like I was, watching Jan Klata’s Hamlet during the 18th Shakespeare Festival in the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre.

The next morning I took my son for a walk on the Theatre’s walls (fig. 6).


fig. 6 The walls

fig. 6 The walls

Photographs: Magdalena Cieślak

Magdalena Cieślak

Author: Magdalena Cieślak

Magdalena Cieślak is Assistant Professor at the Department of Studies in Drama and Pre-1800 Literature at the University of Łódź, where she teaches literature, specifically Renaissance drama, literary theory and cultural studies. She is a member of an interdepartmental and interdisciplinary academic team at the International Shakespeare Studies Centre (ISSC) whose aim is to conduct research on Shakespeare’s works and his presence in Polish and global culture. She is, with Agnieszka Rasmus, our Co-Associate Editor for Poland.
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