Internet Shakespeare Editions

Shakespeare in Democratic Poland

Shakespeare in Poland -- page 10

9. Theatrical renditions of Shakespeare in Democratic Poland

In 1989 when Solidarity won a spectacular victory in a parliamentary election and Poland became a democratic system, the Polish theatre lost its position as a custodian of patriotic values and national conscience. It was deprived of its two powerful allusions: dreams for the independence of Poland, and an anti-totalitarian parable. Zbigniew Majchrowski, for example, deftly observed that Shakespeare's "Denmark is a prison" could no longer be understood by a Polish audience as a veiled shout to "let out all political prisoners" or "let Poland be at last Polish." "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" could no longer be treated as a direct criticism of the Communist regime's corruption and political inadequacy, and the division of King Lear's kingdom (1.2) could no longer evoke the association with the division of Poland after the Yalta Conference (1993: 24-25). [Note 37]

For a decade (1989-1999) most Polish productions of Shakespeare's plays were not interested in recent social, political, and cultural concerns: Polish politicians' competition for power and privilege, the deprivation of the unemployed, abortion, Christian values, the role of women in social life, ethnicity, popular culture, multiculturalism and immigration, usually from the ex-Soviet Union republics, were not recognised as the possible amplitudes which may begin to shape theatre poetics and its repertoire. Despite Marta Fik's shrewd encouragement in 1992, there was not enough attention given

to the theatre of allusion in its form outside the stage as, for example, through the new translations of Shakespeare, to see whether there is any mystical allusion present, not in the plays themselves, but in the drama reviews of the plays. (1992: 146)

Instead, laments about dwindling subsidies and disappearing audiences became pervasive in the Polish theatre community soon after 1989. The censorship of ideology was replaced by the censorship of commercialism. To tempt the spectators, many theatres favoured vaudeville, musicals, and farces, since there was no place for the deviance, resistance, autonomy, or revolt that are firmly located beyond the hostile walls of the impressive monolith--the Market. Immediate financial profits imposed restrictions on theatrical repertories, which avoided Shakespeare (and other classics).

In 2000, Teatr, one of the leading Polish theatre periodicals, conducted a survey "Freedom or end?" among eminent directors, which was to show what the theatres' The majority of respondents maintained that the Polish theatre lost its high social status, self-identity, high artistic standard, economic stability, "political" opponent, and interpretative "key" for the classics. The theatre gained self-reliance in the repertoire and economic matters, competition from mass media (film, video, 60 TV) in its social function, unemployment, free market economy, which influences artistic choices, and taxation.

From the perspective of today, one may say that the initial overwhelming collapse of the artistic stature of many theatres and the intellectual crisis of their audiences contributed to the current rebirth of Shakespeare in Polish cultural life. The situation became so critical that the Ministry of Culture had to financially sponsor ambitious and intellectually challenging theatrical productions: The sponsoring of the annual International Shakespeare Festivals organised by Professor Jerzy Limon and his Theatrum Gedanense Foundation has played an especially significant role in Shakespeare's renascence in Polish cultural life. The Foundation regularly convenes international conferences attended by scholars, critics, translators and theatre practitioners (directors and actors). In 1993 the annual organisation of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Week (August) commenced, and today Polish and foreign theatre companies present many Shakespeare's plays. The Foundation sponsors the Best Shakespeare Production of the Year Award called the "Golden Yorick."

Since for many decades theatres followed the same artistic technique of the "theatre of political allusions and metaphors," they frequently face now the same problems: a lack of a sense of form and an inability to create theatre from the text alone. In a broader sense, one may say that the Polish stage tradition does not possess the language and the conventions of expression that are crucial for staging Shakespeare. Yet, there is no dearth of productions of Shakespeare's plays in recent years. They are produced by theatres of all ranks, as well as on television. In 1989-1999 there were 120 productions of Shakespeare's plays staged in Poland. The plays that once dominated Polish cultural life have, however, changed. The list of the most frequently produced plays is headed by A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, and Twelfth Night. Hamlet, which used to be one of the most popular plays under the Communist regime, now occupies the fifth position. The popularity of Romeo and Juliet has increased after the Polish release of Baz Lurhman's film in April 11, 1997.

Shakespeare's tragedies are less often produced, as if their problematics, the bloody struggle for power, the rules of tyrants, and the ruthless Grand Mechanism of history were to undermine the relatively young democratic system of Poland. To escape the political implications of tragedies some directors initially looked for unusual interpretations. Presented against a pompous, opera-like setting, the Warsaw Powszechny Theater production of Macbeth in 1996 may serve here as a good example. In this production the royal couple's sexual sterility [sic!] was presented as the reason of their struggle for power and all the accompanying murders.

The current prevalence of Shakespeare's comedies in the repertoires of Polish theatres has partly been determined by pragmatic objectives: love and romantic stories draw theatregoers. Staged frequently in fairy-like conventions or settings, comedies promulgate the ideas of freedom of contemporary culture, or at least equality between its high, low, and folk variants. Yet the reviewers complain that these productions lack a distinctive artistic focus. In addition the sexual innuendoes are usually toned down, which is not surprising in a country dominated by Catholic church values, while many of Shakespeare's linguistic jokes and punch lines are lost in translation (Baniewicz 2000: 279).

There have been, however, productions that stirred both the Polish and the international community. In the Ludowy Theater in Nowa Huta (1992 ), Jerzy Fedorowicz used the local skinheads (the Montague clan) and punks (the Capulet family members) as the cast for his controversial Romeo and Juliet. He invited them to take part in the production because his theatre-goers feared for their safety. It became impossible for the audience to enter and later leave the theatre building, which had to be guarded each night with police and dogs (Adaszyńska, 1994: 34-35). Zofia Szlachta recalls the circumstances of the production:

Those [the local skinheads and punks] who were asked to act were in for a shock. The punks learnt that their bodies tensed with aggression are worthless when it comes to fighting an active opponent. Fedorowicz hired a world master of king-fu to train them. [. . .] The skinheads walked out of the rehearsal when they were told to memorise the verse. They came back the next day as if nothing happened. (1993: 34)


Romeo and Juliet, Panstwowy Teatr Ludowy, Nowa Huta, director: Jerzy Fedorowicz, 1992. Click on the image to see a larger version.

The production affected some of the performers (two of them graduated from high school and entered university), while some resumed their old ways of life (one died of a drug overdose). Again Shakespeare was turned into a panacea for the social problems of a given moment and place in Polish culture.

In 1998 the Modrzejewska Theatre of Legnica, a middle-sized town in the Lower Silesian region of Poland, presented at the Theatrum Gedanense Festival its production of Coriolanus. This production of Shakespeare's Roman tragedy, first staged in the devastated building that had formerly been the Soviet Army barracks in Poland, straddled different ages: it was simultaneously timeless and culturally specific. Following the actors all over the site of their performance, the audience was actively engaged in a tough and ceaselessly brutal production, full of sticks, burning torches and swords. image

Coriolanus, Teatr im. Heleny Modrzejewskiej, Legnica, directors: Jacek Golomb and Krzysztof Kopka, 1998. Click on the image to see a larger version.

The co-directors, Jacek Golomb and Krzysztof Kopka, who had been both radical supporters of the 1980 "Solidarity" movement, interpreted Coriolanus as a statement of their disillusionment with the Polish politics in the post-Communist era. "The Rome of Coriolanus," as Neville Rigby said in his review of the production at the Edinburgh Festival (2001), takes on "a new order"

--one that reflects the reality of a post-war Poland, stripped of its earlier patrician and intellectual elite, and now heir to a post-Communist class system determined not by birthright but by rapidly acquired wealth. Rome and Corioli [. . .] are little more than rival peasant villages with leaders competing in the scramble for control based solely on the power of their purse and the strength of their sword arm. (qtd. theatre programme, 2001)

At the same time the internal struggle in Rome and its external conflict with the Volsces, its troublesome rivals, were used in this production as some adroit comment on the fickleness of human nature. It condemned the politicians who took advantage of a freedom movement to promote their own selfish interests, abandoning their high ideals at the expense of the people who had helped them achieve power.

We are conditioned by our past that to a large degree fashions our present, that shapes our and other people's consciousness, and that determines our current situation and actions. Though the new generation of theatre performers, directors, and stage designers work in a different ideological milieu, the Polish theatrical heritage still affects their work, even when they maintain that they completely reject it. [Note 38] Agata Adamiecka maintains that a certain continuation of tradition can be detected in the highly aesthetic productions directed by Maciej Prus and Krzysztof Warlikowski, who are "suspicious towards states of consciousness" and "attempt to reveal paradoxes of human existence in the world" (2000: 74-75).

Warlikowski is here of a special significance, since this young theatre director has recently received many Polish and international awards for his artistic achievements, starting in 1999 with his challenging staging of Hamlet in the Warsaw Rozmaitosci Theatre. [Note 39] In his production Warlikowski presented Hamlet as psychologically dependent on his mother, in fact overwhelmed by his childish desire to monopolise her love. Their intimate relations were, among others, fully revealed in a scene (3.4), in which the prince rushed naked into her chamber. In addition, Warlikowski's Hamlet was a homosexual, playing sexual games with Rosecrantz and Guildenstern, whose parts were performed by women. In this production of the play the boundaries between the sexes collapsed. According to one critic, the director turned to transgression to reveal his characters' ongoing search for identity. Warlikowski "presented classical figures as contemporary people--great individuals, unpredictable and driven by basic human instinct" (Pawlowski: 2003: 45). Though Warlikowski's defenders stressed his originality, the production earned him the name of a "scandalist." He was accused of "bad taste" and "moral impropriety," an accusation which, according to his admirers, proves how "superficial is still the reception of contemporary art in Poland" (Gruszczynski, 2003: 108). [Note 40]



[37] At the Yalta Conference (1954) Stalin gained acceptance of the Curzon Line as the Soviet-Polish frontier and tacit acknowledgment that the Polish state would have the Oder-Neisse Line as a western boundary. The new European borders deprived Poland of its lands in the eastern parts (e.g. in today's Lithuania, Ukraine, and Byelorussia) and reaffirmed its position as the Soviet Union satellite. [Back]

[38] Many of the early productions of that period could be described in Zygmunt Bauman's opinion on the place of theater in the postmodern art, given in a different context. They showed "a day after a day reproduced at an empty space of stage [which] has never presented human existence more directly than now, when the auditorium is filled by the citizens of a postmodern city" (1998: 2). [Back]

[39] Before Hamlet, Warlikowski directed The Winter's Tale in Poznan (1997) and The Taming of the Shrew in Warsaw (1998). In 2002 he staged The Tempest in Warsaw, a controversial production in which the parts of Iris, Juno, and Ceres were played by actors, who, as the guardians of tradition, were dressed in national Polish folklore costumes. image

The Tempest, Teatr Rozmaitosci, Warsaw, director: Krzysztof Warlikowski, 2002. Click on the image to see a larger version.


[40] In 2001 Warlikowski again found himself at the centre of critical attention: he staged Sarah Kane's Cleansed, her most elaborate and controversial play. His production involved the bravest and most explicit sex scenes ever shown in the history of Polish theatre (Wegrzyniak, 2003: 131). [Back]