Much ado about something: Shakespeare festival woos Gdańsk

The Merry Wives of Windsor

Shakespeare never quite made it to Poland and his sole mention of the country in the final scene of Hamlet seems to show only the vaguest of ideas about its location.

Yet Gdańsk, the country’s largest port on the Baltic Sea, was a fixture on the itineraries of travelling theatre troupes from England in his time with the first visit documented for 1601.

The popularity of English theatre was such that a playhouse was erected in the city centre that would not have looked out of place in London of its time - though as its name, The Fencing School suggests it was also used for other entertainments.

In September 2014 a reconstruction of the building opened on the site in large part as a venue for the Gdańsk Shakespeare Festival which opened last weekend in its 22nd incarnation. The ten-day festival will feature performances from as far afield as Iran and Argentina though the star billing seems to belong to the rather less exotic Theater Freiburg of Germany.

Directed by Ewelina Marciniak, a rising star of the Polish stage, the painterly performance of The Midsummer Night’s Dream won plaudits from German critics who praised the set and costumes designed by Katarzyna Borkowska which draw heavily on Italian Renaissance art and on Sandro Boticelli in particular. The Freiburg show was hailed by Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as one of the major events of this year in German theatre.

The festival audience will be able to compare this Midsummer Night’s Dream with another version, a circus-inspired production by Mostafa Koushki at Tehran’s Mostaghel Theatre.

Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre

Another much anticipated production is Jan Klata’s Measure for Measure from Divadlo pod Palmovkou in Prague. The Czech performance is billed as an attack on Puritanism in all its forms.

The festival will also feature a Macbeth in Sardinian from Cagliari’s Sardegna Teatro and compagna Teatropersona. Directed by Alessandro Serra the performance draws on theatrical conventions of Shakespeare’s own time by using an all-male cast. The high-energy show draws on folk traditions of the Mediterranean’s least known big island and its director declares he wanted to create a pagan ritual on the stage.

A somewhat similar intention could be found in Hamlet – A Commentary by Grzegorz Bral of The Goat Song Theatre, an independent company from Wrocław. The performance will be one of two competing for this year’s Golden Yorick, a prize for the year’s best Polish production of Shakespeare. The other contender for the prize is also from Wrocław where Agata Duda-Gracz directed Macbeth at the Capitol Theatre. In contrast to Bral’s ascetic staging, Duda-Gracz uses a large case of dozens as well as lavish visual effects.

The festival runs to 5 August.