Posts Tagged ‘Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre’

Jan Kott: Shakespeare our Contemporary

May 31, 2018

downloadThere are times when I get cross with myself for not having read a book sooner: this one has been on my shelves waiting since 1995, and another reminder of it at my recent Shakespeare week finally convinced me to take it down and read it.

It was published in the early 1960s when Kott, formerly critic and professor of literature and drama at Warsaw University had left for the West. A foreigner’s perspective on our national dramatist is always very interesting, and Kott’s was an eye-opener, coming from a man who had experienced (and initially supported!) Stalinism, as well as a man from a country with serious links with Shakespeare. It’s known, for instance, that in the 1590s when London theatres were closed because of the plague, Shakespeare’s company toured Europe, including Poland – it’s not known that Shakespeare was with them – and after the construction of the replica Globe Theatre in London, there was a major project, recently completed, to construct a replica theatre in Gdansk, on the Baltic coast, where any ship would have docked in the sixteenth century, and which hosts a Shakespeare festival of its own each summer.

Kott offers first of all a convincing and unified vision of the History plays, with echoes and parallels in twentieth-century history. Then he considers the atmosphere of conspiracy and paranoia at state level in Hamlet. His analysis of the play, and particularly of the role of Fortinbras, is quite chilling and reflects the police states and secret police he knew so well, in this ‘drama of political crime’. This vision comes across strongly in Kozintsev’s stunning Russian film of the play from the same era.

Kott sees characters devoid of free will and the ability to choose, and playing parts imposed on them by outside mechanisms. His approach, attitude and style of analysis are most definitely not English, and this is a collection of essays that could only have been written after the Second World War, and by someone who had lived under Stalinism; his is a very dark perspective on the world and on human beings. The essays on Macbeth and Othello I found particularly thought-provoking. Overall, his knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare and his relevance in the modern world is masterly, and his scope wide-ranging.

There’s also a fascinating exploration of androgyny through the cross-dressing heroines of the comedies, Twelfth Night and As You Like It in particular, along with the subjects of the sonnets, strong and perceptive on the ambiguity, as well as considering the link between the need to use boy actors and the way Shakespeare framed his female roles. However, in some ways this section feels dated, particularly because of the old-fashioned, coded language when writing about homosexuality and homoeroticism in the early 1960s and from the background of a communist state… Approaches to Shakespeare generally have developed enormously in the intervening half-century, sparked by critics like Kott.

The book concludes with an essay on The Tempest which sees parallels between Prospero and Leonardo da Vinci, and focuses on the circularity of the play which for Kott ends where it begins; it’s an essay which could not have been written pre-Hiroshima either.

So, an eye-opener for me, a book to go back to, a book which I wish I’d read while I was still teaching, and a reminder not to let books sit on the shelves unopened.

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My travels: G for Gdansk

January 19, 2017

Gdansk is probably one of my most favourite cities anywhere. I first went there on my very first visit to Poland at the age of fifteen, so way back in the days of the communist People’s Republic; this was also round about the time when I first came across it as the setting for Gunter Grass’ novel The Tin Drum, in its pre-war incarnation as the Free City of Danzig.

It’s a coastal city and major port, on the mouth of the Vistula river, with a beautiful historic centre, featuring many gates, towers, streets of merchants’ houses, mills and of course, churches, including St Mary’s, which counts as one of the largest – if not the largest – brick Gothic churches in the world: it really is colossal, both from the outside and within. One of the things of which I’ve learnt in my travels around northern Poland is the brick Gothic church trail, which stretches all the way from Belgium to Russia: in England there were copious supplies of stone to be quarried for church-building in mediaeval times, but in northern Europe there weren’t, and so bricks had to be used; coming from England one perhaps has the impression that basic brick is a fairly ugly, utilitarian or pedestrian material from which to build a place to the glory of God, but needs must when the devil drives, as they say, and there is actually an incredible wealth of really beautiful churches to be seen…

Gdansk is now also home to its very own Shakespeare Theatre and annual festival: apparently, in Shakespeare’s time, when the London theatres were closed by the plague, as they often were, Shakespeare’s company visited Gdansk and performed there a number of times, although there is no record that the dramatist himself ever went with them. And following in the footsteps of London’s Globe Theatre, the Poles recently succeeded in completing their own tribute to those times.

Why do I like it so much? It’s a walker’s city, with beautiful views along and across its many waterways which give that part of it a very spacious feel; strolling down the streets of merchants’ houses there is so much to see in the architecture and decoration – all the buildings are painted; it’s a city full of history and monuments. There is the famous Polish Post Office, which held out at the start of the Second World War and is immortalised in Grass’ novel, the site at Westerplatte where the Polish garrison withstood German fire for days that September, and of course the famous shipyards that were the site of the birth of the Solidarity trade union movement in the early 1980s. There are also a couple of excellent micro-breweries.

It was Grass’ novel which fed my interest in the city over the years. The Tin Drum, and its sequels Cat and Mouse and Dog Years, are rooted in the past incarnation of the city as much as Joyce’s Ulysses is embedded in Edwardian Dublin. The Free City of Danzig, created by the treaties at the end of the Great War, lay at the mouth of the mighty Vistula river and on the edge of the infamous Polish Corridor, which granted the new nation access to the sea. You can follow the adventures of Oscar Matzerath and his family and acquaintances on a pre-war map; although the city had to be rebuilt post-1945 and all its streets, places and monuments acquired Polish names, these are for the most part the exact counterparts of their pre-war names; the city was both German and Polish, and in some ways Grass’ novels are as much of an elegy to a lost world as are novels like Lampedusa’s The Leopard or Roth’s The Radetzky March. Today’s citizens of Gdansk realise that Grass is an asset for the tourist trail; there is a Tin Drum restaurant, and various places associated with Grass’ childhood are marked out for the visitor.

It is a wonderful place, one to which I hope to return again and to spend more time exploring.

Shakespeare’s First Folio

September 24, 2014

I’ve finally watched the recent programme by Simon Russell Beale in the BBC Secret Life of Books series, and was mildly disappointed: nothing new revealed, just some nice shots of very old books to drool over, really. A missed opportunity, but it had me reflecting on my life with Shakespeare.

Quite a few years ago, when in need of a treat, and feeling flush, I treated myself to a facsimile of the First Folio. It is a lovely book, and there is something quite magical in being transported back four centuries and seeing the complete works as they first appeared from the press. And yet, it’s a complete fake, of course. The Norton edition is a collation of photographic reproductions of the best pages from dozens of different First Folios, all collected at the Folger Library somewhere in the US, I can’t remember where. So, as a fascimile it’s the best possible one to have: no blurred or smudged pages, and so on. Just that the ‘original’ of it doesn’t exist!

Texts, especially Shakespeare’s, are edited and interpreted for us before we read them. Different quartos (if these exist) and the various folios are compared, decisions taken where uncertainties exist; spellings are often modernised, as is punctuation, words are glossed and explained in footnotes: our access to 16th/17th century texts is eased, simplified. Although there are the famous ‘cruxes’ – words or phrases that nobody has succeeded in making head or tail of since then: the ‘arm-gaunt steed’ in Antony and Cleopatra, for instance – that remain to puzzle us.

At this point it is good to remind oneself that these plays were written to be performed in the theatre, not pored over in a classroom or lecture theatre, and I often did remind my students of this fact. And how different the experience is: language that seems impenetrable on the page is instantaneously digested and understood with ease – if only partially – and interpreted for us with the help of the action onstage. The play is brought to life – oh so powerfully and as intended – and we receive what Shakespeare intended, but then remember it has been mediated by a director and the actors…

Studying the written text can be very revealing and very fulfilling: one can explore, and focus on the power of the language and the cleverness of the writer; one can seek connections and links throughout a play; one can analyse rhyme or rhythm. None of this is a substitute for the real thing. And yet, it’s partly this that has led to the hagiography of Shakespeare over the centuries. Not that that is undeserved, but I suspect it does mean that it is no longer possible to stand sufficiently far enough back to get any real perspective on the man and his work in his time. As Simon Russell Beale pointed out, if the First Folio hadn’t been compiled, then we’d only have half of Shakespeare’s plays. What would we make of him then?

Edited texts: the Arden Shakespeare second series was always the gold standard in my student days and is still the one I prefer, though long discontinued. The Arden third series is good, though not as good, and if I had to recommend a modern edition it would be the New Cambridge Shakespeare, which certainly now has the edge. And for a smaller and cheaper edition, it is still hard to beat the New Penguin, with its excellent introductions, though having to flip to the back for notes and glosses has always annoyed me.

I was amused to read of the glitch – a two hour bomb-scare – at the opening of the new Shakespeare theatre in the Polish city of Gdansk: of course, the silly Prime Minister did mention the name of the Scottish play….

 

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