In two years’ time a car-park just outside Gdańsk’s historic city centre will be transformed into a £20m theatre. It will be home to the city’s annual Shakespeare festival – one of the world’s largest – as well as a year-round programme. Andrew Dickson in The Guardian comments:
The really fascinating thing about the site where we are standing is its past. Just a few metres below our feet lie the remains of another theatre, this one four centuries old. Remarkably, it was built not for Polish actors, but for English ones, making Gdańsk the site of the only Shakespearean playhouse to have been constructed outside England during the Bard’s lifetime.
Professor Jerzy Limon, 60, who teaches at the University of Gdańsk, relates the tale over lunch. “During Shakespeare’s time, competition between theatre companies was growing, and many actors found themselves unemployed. So they travelled.” From the 1580s onwards, English troupes – initially performing in their native tongue, then offering German translations of plays by Marlowe, Shakespeare and many others – acted in Leiden, Frankfurt, Vienna, Prague, even reaching Riga in winter 1647 (they wrote to the authorities moaning about the snow). A troupe performed at Helsingør (Elsinore) in 1586, raising the intriguing possibility that Shakespeare heard about the setting for Hamlet from colleagues who had seen it firsthand.
They also visited Danzig (Gdańsk), then one of the wealthiest cities in Europe. Actors first arrived as early as 1587, and continued coming until the 1650s; after about 1600 they performed in their own purpose-built playhouse, modelled on the Elizabethan Fortune theatre in London. “Spreading culture was not the aim,” explains Limon. “But English drama percolated around Europe. Poland became a haven.”
Gdańsk is, indeed, undergoing a second renaissance – in addition to the festival, now in its 15th year (Limon is behind this too), the city bustles with energy. There’s newly commissioned dance at the city’s opera house and, across town, builders are finishing off an £170m football stadium for next year’s European Championship. Though Limon is modest about his brainchild, he admits it is a metaphor of sorts. “Historically, Gdańsk was a miniature of the united Europe, an affluent society living in peace. The project is a symbol of England’s contribution to European culture.” And surely of Poland’s, too? He grins. “Of Poland’s, too.”
For more information: Gdańsk Shakespeare Festival — Photo: a Polish Hamlet