After two decades of effort and hard work, the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre has finally opened its doors to audiences. Professor Jerzy Limon, the grand project's spiritus movens, declares that "it's more than a theatre", as he proudly takes visitors on a walk across this free city of the arts. How do you like it?
First, we enter an elegant chest the colour of anthracite, and only later do we arrive at the delicate wooden construction of an Elizabethan theatre. To the left, there is a narrow alley, a courtyard and a few shady corners. Bright staircases made of stone lead us onto a terrace made of dark brick, evocative of Gothic cathedrals. These terraces simultaneously play the role of a trail to be walked while admiring a panorama of the city of Gdańsk and the remains of a defensive wall built some seven centuries earlier. According to the director of the Gdańsk Shakespearian Theatre, Prof. Jerzy Limon, the whole construction is more than just a theatre, as the Venetian architect Renato Rizzi created the model of an ancient city within it:
"We want for the entire form to play a part, and for it to be open onto various artistic activities, unlimited by space. What we are looking at is a chest for theatre. Its openable cover weighs 160 tons, and thanks to this, it's possible to perform in daylight, like it was done in Shakespeare's time. When we look inside, we can also see other treasures – three floors of wooden galleries for the audience, with simple, leather-coated seats, situated across trapdoors. A total of 56 mobile platforms is hidden under the floor, and it's thanks to them that the simple Elizabethan stage can be transformed into a technically complex Italian stage in just a few minutes, taking on the shape of either a cube or an arena, surrounded by audience seats from all four sides. "
Its modern and mulitfunctional form, built out of over 620 thousand hand-manufactured bricks, is an object of admiration for some, while others say that it disturbs the architectural line of Gdańsk's Old Town. The audience's reviews are extreme and contrasted, just like they were for the Elizabethan theatre. Connoisseurs of architecture claim that the Italian Rizzi took a bold step out of the era and presented something which we hadn't seen before. Rizzi himself explains that his project is a reflection on the historic: "It's a new work, and the new always incites great curiosity. Let's give it time to inscribe itself into this cityscape".
But before this may happen, let us remind you how the project to raise the Shakespearian Theatre headquarters right in the historic heart of Gdańsk came into being.
Shakespeare arrives in Gdańsk
This one-of-a-kind theatre first came to life two decades ago in the mind of Jerzy Limon – an English literature expert, theatrologist and professor at Gdańsk University. Limon is the author of many translations of Elizabethan plays as well as books devoted to Shakespeare, and he is founder and president of the Teatrum Gedanense Foundation, which was started up with the aim of building a Shakespearian theatre in Gdańsk. Few really believed in the realisation of this mad idea.
Let us now go back to the year 1610. It was most likely the year in which the Fencing School building was raised in the then-Renaissance city of Gdańsk. Fencing exercises and juggling shows were hosted there, next to regular theatre showings. Throughout the Dominican Fair, Europe's first professional actors performed there, arriving in Gdańsk from faraway England. And, according to Limon, among those actors was William Shakespeare himself.
The preserved documents proved that for more than 130 years, the Fencing School was the only public theatre of the Polish Republic. We do not know it's exact location. Following the Polish-Swedish wars, it's possible that a new building was raised in its place in 1935. A bill that remains indicates that the author of the original building was Jacob van den Blocke, from the famous Flemish family which travelled to Gdańsk from Mechelen. The shape of the old Fencing School building is known to us thanks a preserved etching dated about 1650, and authored by Dutchman Peter Willer. Nearly a century later, the Comedy House opened in this location.
Professor Limon is convinced that the history of the place which now hosts the Gdańsk Shakespearian Theatre confirms its status as the city's theatrical cradle, and it also proves that this multi-national city has an incredibly rich cultural heritage, unparalleled by any other city in the country. Symbolically, then, the building is raised on a historic foundation, but on an architectural level, it reaches way into the 21st century.
Wajda: "Hamlet won't find a better place for himself"
According to the Polish Minister of Culture Małgorzata Omilanowska, the theatre's opening is one of the most significant events of the season. "It is an entirely new quality in culture and at the same time, the highest global grade of architectural art, a combination of Italian imagination and the tradition of Gdańsk." The building was also much admired by the director Andrzej Wajda, who was present at the opening ceremony. He supported the project from its outset: "When I look at the black walls and little dark corners that surround a bright wooden stage, my heart starts to pound. There is no better place for Shakespeare". Piotr Adamowicz, the mayor of Gdańsk, adds that the opening is an unprecedented event in the 1000-year history of the city, and this not only because of its scale and grandeur. "We are demonstrating the way in which we are managing freedom. The GTS headquarters is the first theatre built in Poland in the past 40 years from scratch, and an example of solidarity in the collaboration between many cultural institutions. The cost of this investment is more then 90 million euros." Poland's former Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, commented at the opening:
– Gdańsk deserves this theatre, everyone who loves this city and knows it also knows that they could be yet another hero of a great Shakespearian tragedy and drama. Luckily, it is one with a happy ending – and this is the only difference between us and the most touching of Shakespeare's plays.
The theatre (called Gdański Teatr Szekspirowski in the original Polish) aims to become an important centre for the arts and the headquarters of an annual Shakespeare festival. It also aims to conduct an educational programme. The institution will also undoubtedly become a tourist destination and a flagship venue for the city. Limon says:
– We are creating the model of a free city of arts whose dwellers will speak their hearts out on the stage and the other spaces of the theatre, which can act as an agora. Concerts, happenings, performance art pieces and exhibits will all take place there, as well as anything that makes up the art of today"
The construction of the GTS enjoyed the patronage of many prominent figures from the artistic, cultural, political and media circles. Apart from Andrzej Wajda, the project was also supported by Prince Charles and Emma Thompson, as well as Krystyna Janda, Jerzy Radziwiłłowicz, Marek Kondrat, and Paweł Wawrzecki. Limon was also supported by actors of London's The Globe, and Gregory Doran, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The theatres of Europe
Following a bold opening enriched with a battle between Spanish fencers, a spectacular show of the Mira Art Dance Theatre, a triumphant march of thousands of Gdańsk natives and an extra bomb alert (apparently evoked because of Macbeth, which was alluded to in the speech by Tusk), the theatre now faces new challenges – those of filling the building with high quality artistic content.
The theatre will have an impresario structure, and it will mainly promote the works of Shakespeare. The British Week which was launched last Saturday and included showings of Hamlet by the legendary Globe Theatre, as well as the staging of Missing, a movement performance by the Gecko troupe, the one-man show called I, Malvolio by Tim Crouch, and a premiere show of Teatr Wybrzeże's Maria Stuart, directed by Adam Nalepa. From the 27th of September through to the 5th of October, 2014, the theatre hosts the 18th annual Shakespeare Festival, devoted to Hamlet. Jan Klata brings his version of the drama from the Schauspielhaus in Bochum, with Marcin Czernik cast in the main role.
Another Hamlet is brought by the Bulgarian theatre and film director Javor Gardev from the National Theatre in Sofia. There will also be a visiting show of puppet theatre from Saint Petersburg. The upcoming November after the festival is scheduled to be a month with the Narodowy (National) Theatre of Warsaw.
The Gdański Teatr Szekspirowski is located on 1 Wojciecha Bogusławskiego street in Gdańsk.
Anna Legierska, source: press release, own materials, translated by Paulina Schlosser, 23/09/2014