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Shakespeare in Gdansk: A Vessel for Past, Present, and Future

Four actors in full costume controlling puppets on stage.

Hamlet on the Road produced by Teatr RADOST (Divadlo Radost). Script, lyrics, and dramaturgy by Pavel Trtílek. Directed by Joanna Zdrada. Scenic design by Pavel Hubička. Music by Tomasz Lewandovski.

From 27 July to 6 August 2022, audiences gathered in Gdansk, Poland to attend the twenty-sixth annual Gdansk Shakespeare Festival, which hosted contemporary productions from Denmark, Poland, the Czech Republic, Norway, Italy, Ukraine, and the United States. The festival featured diverse versions of William Shakespeare’s work including musicals, radical deconstructions, and dance-theatre explorations. Multiple versions of several plays were presented, allowing audience members to celebrate the malleability of familiar stories and experience these four-hundred-year-old texts as provocative visions of the present moment and the future. In the hands of a group of global theatremakers, Shakespeare’s plays became containers for contemporary considerations of human rights, gender politics, anti-war sentiment, and more.

Along with Sopot and Gdynia, Gdansk forms a metropolitan area known as the Tricity. This beautiful port city near the Baltic Sea has a layered history, having once been a wealthy Polish enclave, a German city, and a free city-state. In late July, the breezes were blowing, seagulls were calling overhead, and families flooded the quaint streets, enjoying the slower pace of summer vacation. Although productions were held throughout the city, the home base for the festival was the Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre, which was envisioned by visionary Shakespeare scholar Jerzy Limon. Based on historical evidence that English actors performed Shakespeare’s work in Gdansk in the 1600’s, Limon led the ambitious effort to build a theatre. The result, completed in 2014, is a sleek, modern building with many references to pre-existing local architecture as well as Elizabethan stages. One of the most fantastical elements is the roof, which weighs over ninety tons but can open the stage to daylight in three minutes.

In March 2021, Professor Limon died unexpectedly of COVID-19, leaving the theatre and the festival without their beloved leader. Enter Agata Grenda, the former deputy director of the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, who Limon had previously tapped to become his successor. Grenda accepted the position as director of both the festival and the theatre, and she has embraced the position, the space, and the city with ambition and energy.

If all the world’s a stage, we need those heroes now.

In terms of Shakespeare’s work, Grenda is unequivocal about its relevance: “No one is more accurate or describes the contemporary world better than Shakespeare—all those tyrants, the jealousy, hypocrisy, murderers, gossips.” Under her leadership, this year’s festival expanded to include an international jury as well as a new motto, “Between Heaven and the Stage. After the Tempest?” which emphasizes that while the storms may still be raging, the theatre can help us look forward. In her words, “the world needs protagonists now. If all the world’s a stage, we need those heroes now.”

In an animated interview with me, Grenda was also adamant that audiences need uplifting theatrical spaces: “The role of theatre is also to give joy and laughter. These allow us to keep our humanity, giving us hope and faith that the sun will come out after the storm. This is what this year’s Festival is about.” Her point of view was evident in the theatre, with many of this year’s selections leaning on humor, music, and visual beauty to tell their tales. This joy carried over to the additional programming that surrounded the shows, including artist talkbacks, acting workshops, and a late-night silent disco.

Joanna Klass, the curator and producer who selected this year’s international productions, also prioritized hope and the importance of gathering together at this time, revealing in the press release: “There is no substitute for the communal experience or co-creation of theatre, nor can anything replace the communal viewing of a theatre performance as a spectator: amidst others who are strangers, yet burst out laughing at the same time or hold their breath in delight or sadness.”

A woman dancing on stage.

Chiara Michelini as Ariel in The Tempest by William Shakespeare, adapted by Allesandro Serra. Produced by Teatro Stabile di Torino: Teatro Nazionale. Directed by Allessandro Serra. Scenic design by Allesandro Serra. Costume design by Serra and Francesca Novati. Lighting design by Serra and Stefano Bardelli. Sound design by Serra and Alessandro Saviozzi. Masks by Tiziano Fario.

Theatrical Visions

With eleven days of programming, the festival offered theatregoers an incredible opportunity to reflect on the human condition and engage in community with one another. Stories originally written in English sprung to life in Polish, Czech, and Romanian (some productions honoring the verse, some setting it to music, and some eliminating it altogether) creating an opportunity for interpretation we rarely see on English-speaking stages.

Hamlet on the Road, directed by Joanna Zdrada for Teatr RADOST of Brno, Czech Republic was a pure delight. Staged on a multi-level set that offered the illusion that the troupe had just stopped their travelling cart and opened the back doors, this production utilized humor, vaudeville, marionettes, live music, and an irreverence toward Shakespeare’s Hamlet that allowed them to skip through huge swaths of the text—including Hamlet’s famous soliloquy. A macabre master of ceremonies moderated the performance with a rowdy tone and plenty of audience interaction. Each actor played at least one instrument, and the raucous, upbeat music eventually gave way to a few touching ballads, particularly those by Ophelia and Gertrude. The cast’s fast-moving storytelling and comedic skill were much appreciated by the audience, who goaded the cast into a musical encore in which Hamlet finally asked his famous question: “To be, or not to be.” Smart and irreverent, this show was a highlight of the festival, offering the opportunity to let go and laugh heartily at one of Shakespeare’s tragedies—and to cry a bit during that musical encore.

As the cast unveiled the story of Kate and Petruchio, the three women actors were remarkable for their absence.

H-AM-LET, a media-driven interpretation of the same text, was directed and performed by Peter Mark and produced by the CalArts Center for New Performance, based in Los Angeles, California. It was the lone performance from the Americas, and Mark, who is Brazilian American, spoke in both Portuguese and English—apropos for a production from a country of immigrants. From the inside of a projection cube, Mark explored Hamlet’s fragmented psyche as he performed solo alongside animated figures, gifs, and video game imagery. Co-mingling personal narrative about the illness of his mother, multi-media technology, and humor, Mark crafted a non-linear approach to Shakespeare’s play that was reminiscent of a high-energy installation in a contemporary art museum. If any of the Festival offerings looked like “the future,” it was this fragmented, fast-paced event full of visual stimuli.

Many of the festival productions featured all-male casts, with directors clearly taking inspiration from the tradition of boys playing women’s roles in England during Shakespeare’s time. One of the Polish productions, The Taming of the Shrew directed by Jacek Jabrzyk of Zagłębie Theatre in Sosnowiec, had a unique take on this choice. At the outset of the story, three women sat on the apron of the stage, quietly asking the audience to drop into the moment and meditate. They then spoke in a very contemporary, subdued style about their total unwillingness to participate in the upcoming event. Eventually, the male actors appeared, claiming to be “ready to perform,” and the play as we know it began. The women never appeared again, and the play unfolded with men in all the roles, including a physically bulky man in the role of Kate and a spectacular genderfluid tailor in stilettos. As the cast unveiled the story of Kate and Petruchio, the three women actors were remarkable for their absence. The question of whether they would return lingered for much of the performance, but the women did not appear, even during the curtain call. Kate’s final monologue about a wife’s subservience to her husband was delivered in a lifeless monotone, as if she had nothing left to give. This production, although a bit uneven at times, used this dynamic strategy to address the restriction of rights of women, LGBTQIA+ people, and other marginalized groups.

This performance is not against the war. It’s about the cruelty.

Andronicus Synecdoche by Song of the Goat Theatre in Wroclaw, Poland, which was directed by artistic director Grzegorz Bral, was one of the darker pieces in the festival. Based on Titus Andronicus, this piece was sonically and visually strong, with its live percussion, ritualized singing, and industrial, all-black aesthetic. Although Bral and his company created the production prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the piece took on new meaning this summer. Given Poland’s history with Russian aggression and their proximity to the conflict zone, this gruesome play unavoidably triggered thoughts of the present conflict. This production was not for the faint of heart, as it rendered violence, particularly sexual assault, in a graphic manner. When I interviewed Bral about the production’s relevance to Putin’s war in Ukraine, he asserted that his production is universal: “The war itself, it never ends, and it starts with greed and revenge. This performance is not against the war. It’s about the cruelty.” This focus on cruelty reverberated throughout: Lavinia wore railroad spikes on her mouth and hands after being abused in the forest, and the eerie, high-contrast lighting design rendered images of characters being pinned down as the audience listened to the scream-singing of distraught, angry women.

Some of the smaller shows took place outdoors, like Romeo and Juliet and Other Catastrophic Love Affairs, directed by Rolf Alme. This contribution was from Norway (Shakespeare ESFN Project), and the live performance was paired with a photography exhibit displayed in the open courtyard of the Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre. Two male actors dressed in contemporary black suits took the helm here, handling the material with a light touch, elegant gestures, and a bare outline of the original tale. Using two male performers as both narrators and the ill-fated young lovers created an additional metatheatrical layer clearly communicating a message that “love is love.” As the performers advanced the plot of Romeo and Juliet, they addressed contemporary forbidden lovers, including same-sex couples, honor killings, and others. The live action was followed by a somewhat redundant video epilogue, though the piece was still effective. As Romeo held Juliet died in each other’s arms, seagull calls and passing sirens nearby added an impromptu layer of sound design.

As audiences gathered to encounter new versions of familiar stories, there was a deep sense of gratitude, for we know now, “post-pandemic,” that the collective experience can be taken away. The festival motto for this year—“Between Heaven and the Stage. After the Tempest?”—reminded us that it remains to be seen when or if the tempests we face will end. Meanwhile, the opportunity to spend eleven days immersed in new versions of old stories offered an opportunity to reaffirm our humanity and offer some hope that we can face whatever storms may continue to rage.

Two actors embracing each other.

Andronicus Synecdoche produced by Song of the Goat Theatre. Text and lyrics by Alicja Bral. Directed by Grzegorz Bral. Music by Maciej Rychły. Choir preparation by Paweł Jan Frasz.

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