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  • Shakespeare in Gdańsk, August 2006
  • Russell Jackson (bio)

Between 2 and 12 August 2006, the Polish city of Gdańsk hosted its tenth annual Shakespeare Festival, presenting eleven professional productions from seven countries, supported by educational programs, guest lectures, exhibitions, art shows, and student performances. The Theatrum Gedanense Foundation, of which Jerzy Limón is president, was founded in 1990 to enable the reconstruction of an Elizabethan theater used by English traveling companies (among others) during the seventeenth century. The aim is not merely to recreate a historic playing space, but to enliven the cultural life of this great international city, a Hanseatic port which in its time has been the victim of tragic circumstances, most notably the destruction of most of its city center at the end of the Second World War. But Gdańsk, which was also the birthplace of the movement that led to the fall of the postwar Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, has always been a city of intellectual and artistic, as well as economic, commerce. As part of the celebrations of the tenth festival, sponsorship for a number of prizes was secured, and an international jury was appointed to award them.

Deliberating on the relative merits of such a diverse program, with enormous variations in approach not merely to the Shakespeare texts but to theater itself, concentrated the mind on the validity or viability of "international" or "global" Shakespeare. These productions were not "at home" in Gdańsk; instead, the companies brought their audiences to their own homes, and to their own conflicts, anxieties, and pleasures. On a less-exalted but nonetheless important level, the festival showed the possibilities of the Shakespearean material, even when (as with the Munich Kammerspiele Othello) they seemed at first to take issue with it, if not attack it. The productions included the crowd-pleasing and the crowd-puzzling, intense and extravagant, somber and extroverted. Some productions had been seen elsewhere and more than once, or were firmly established in their theater's repertoire, while others were newly created. The venues included two large theaters in Gdańsk, one of them the Baltic Opera, built for musical theater; smaller studio theaters; a partially restored church in the city center; and the Music Theatre in the neighboring industrial city of Gdynia, so that a diversity of spaces and locations were available. This was very much a festival for the "three cities" of this part [End Page 93] of the Baltic coast—Gdańsk, Gdynia, and the seaside town of Sopot—whose authorities and businesses had contributed generously. The event also coincided with the annual Dominican Fair in Gdańsk, when market stalls and refreshment booths take over many of the city's streets. It seems appropriate, then, to begin by reporting on a particularly festive version of a tragedy.

The Vesturport Theatre from Reykjavík, Iceland, presented their well-traveled Romeo and Juliet at Gdańsk's Wybrzeże Theatre. The proscenium-arch space was modified by seating some of the audience on bleachers behind the traverse stage that served for most of the play's action—except when performers were swinging from trapezes or dangling from ropes and lengths of fabric. A circus or vaudeville atmosphere was encouraged: we blew soap bubbles into the air, and a clown identifying himself as "Peter" engaged the audience in a warm-up session in English interspersed with bits of rapturously received Polish. This included singling out a latecomer for participation and what promised to be humiliation, at which point he was revealed to be a cast member in disguise. Feats of aerial acrobatics, fire-eating, and swordplay energized the opening brawl, and the heads of the rival families appeared at opposite sides of the stage on the trapeze-artists' launching platforms, dressed as if for the circus, with a touch of Baz Luhrmann in Lady Capulet's fishnet stockings and minidress. The Nurse, reminiscent of the Nurse in Shakespeare in Love, was played by a large male actor in drag like a "dame" in British Christmas pantomime; Tybalt was indeed something of a Demon King in flaming red, a tattooed thug in Mephistophelian makeup; and Paris was a would-be crooner...


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