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Bard in Poland

April 29, 2010

The reconstruction of an Elizabethan theater dating from the 17th century in the Baltic port of Gdansk, Poland, is underway. The new theater is to serve as a venue for an annual festival devoted to Shakespeare.

Gdansk's port lit up at night
Gdansk has a long history of hosting touring theater troupesImage: Eric Pawlitzky

The predominantly German-speaking merchant town of Gdansk, also known as Danzig in German, was one of the richest in Europe three centuries ago. Ruled by the kings of Poland, its population also included large numbers of Dutch and Scottish people and English theater companies that would regularly visit Gdansk to perform Shakespeare's plays.

In recent years, open-air productions of Shakespeare's works have once again attracted large crowds to the historical part of Gdansk. Since the launch in 1997 of the annual theater festival, performers from repertory companies and amateur troops come from all over Poland and abroad to participate.

Cafes lining a street in Gdansk, with people sitting outside at tables
Historically and today, Gdansk is multi-culturalImage: picture-alliance / HB Verlag

Now, the reconstruction of the 17th-century Elizabethan theater in the city will add flavor to the festival. Jerzy Limon, professor of theater studies at Gdansk University, long campaigned for the reconstruction project, which is run by the Theatrum Gedanense Foundation.

The foundation operates under the patronage of Britain's Prince Charles, director Sir Peter Hall and German writer Guenter Grass, who was born in 1927 in what was then the Free City of Danzig - a semi-autonomous city-state covering an area that had formerly belonged to the German Empire.

A multicultural city

Professor Limon said that the Elizabethan Theater project aimed to bring out the multicultural side of Gdansk.

"The original citizens of Gdansk in the 16th and 17th centuries were a German-speaking audience, but there was also a large English-Scottish colony, so I'm sure they had some role to play when English theater companies would come to the city," he said.

German writer Nobel laureate Guenter Grass in front of his birthhouse in Gdansk
Gdansk native Guenter Grass is part of the effortImage: dpa

The actors first performed in English, but quickly switched to German prose translations, he explained, because the audiences were not accustomed to professional theater, as in London.

"So the 'King Lear' they performed was not really a tragedy, but a sad story of a foolish father who divided up his kingdom," Limon said. "But then there were dances, there was the clown and he sang merry songs. It had to be entertaining."

Nowadays, the Shakespeare festival held every August draws the likes of Andrzej Seweryn, one of Poland's best Shakespearean actors, who is also a star of the Comedie Francaise in Paris.

Theater as a treasure chest

In 2012, when the new Elizabethan theater is scheduled to open, Shakespeare fans can feast their eyes on the unusual design of the building, Limon explained.

"We have an Italian genius who has revolutionized everything as far as reconstructions go. He rejected the idea of creating a theme park where you buy a ticket and enter a different time," Limon said, referring to architect Renato Rizzi.

drawing of the theater
The new theater, designed by Renzo Rizzi, can be open air or closedImage: Gdanski Teatr Szekspirowski

"What he created is an architectural treasure chest that has a lid that opens, and inside is our delicate wooden theater taken from the 17th century," he noted. "When you open the lid you can perform in the daylight, when you close the lid you have artificial lighting."

One of the greatest supporters of the project is Poland's most famous filmmaker and theater director, Andrzej Wajda. For him, the Elizabethan theater and the festival it will host will serve as a true celebration of Shakespeare.

"After all, we have so many wonderful artists who have Shakespeare in their repertoire and in their hearts," Wajda said. "They live and breathe Shakespeare."

But Limon believes that the focus of the theater should not just be all things Elizabethan. Instead, the theater's main aim will be to draw the younger generation to drama.

"We have been organizing the Shakespearean festival for 13 years, with 60 to 70 percent of the people in the audience under 25," he pointed out. "Our task today is to make sure that these people don't stop going to the theater."

Centuries ago, in Gdansk as well as in London, most of the spectators were apprentices, young boys from craftsmen's shops who would frequent theaters, Limon explained.

"They were the troublemakers, but they were also theater lovers. So it's youth, I think, that loves this sort of unusual contact on the Elizabethan stage."

Author: Rafal Kiepuszewski (als)
Editor: Kate Bowen