Features International Published 9 October 2014

Gdansk Shakespeare Festival

Laura Seymour reports from the 18th Gdańsk Shakespeare Festival, the highlights of which included Jan Klata's Hamlet and Peter Cižmár’s Macbeth.
Laura Seymour

Jan Klata states he was perplexed by the accusation that Claudius killed Old Hamlet – Claudius seems such a nice guy. From the mole-ridden, contested patch of ground that is Shakespeare’s most revered text, Klata has grown a teutophone Hamlet who is completely compelling despite being almost unlovable, and (in the words of Dimitrij Schaad, who plays him) wrong about pretty much everything. With their Funny Games style turbo golf clubs, Fortinbras and the Ghost seem to have stepped right out of HKlata’s last Hamlet-play in a now-demolished abandoned shipyard in Gdansk: both are played by Marcin Czarnik, who played Hamlet in H. Their terrifying commitment to (un)noteworthy deeds is set against a diplomatic court, where Gertrude and Claudius wear steampunk ruffs with a difference.

A body count, red pen and text in hand, reveals that Hamlet kills more people than any other character –yet it tends to be surprisingly hard to register this fact: people tend to mis-think of Hamlet as a dawdler, who shies from action.  Klata’s production entices us to count, additionally, the bodies who drop out of the theatre: audience members repulsed, or deliberatingly offended by Klata’s interpretation of the play-within-a-play. ‘To be or not to be’ is staged as a hesitant ‘First Part’ of The Mousetrap, because, as Schaad says, as it is usually staged (a set-piece soliloquy), ‘it just looks stupid’ – who walks around talking to themselves like that? Afterwards, Claudius, high as a stork amid the audience in the gallery, and quoting more than once from ‘Hamlet’s Advice to the Players’, patronisingly critiques everything from Hamlet’s delivery to the way his white outfit looks in the light.

Hamlet responds with a wordless Mousetrap Part II that quickly collapses/resolves itself into a psychodrama of Hamlet’s obsession with porous somatic boundaries. Many people departed the theatre (in disgust, justifiable anger, or perhaps just to check the exact internet citation for this scene) as Hamlet, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (the latter
wearing distorted human-face masks) used squeezy tubes with oodles of coloured paint to simulate coprophagia, projectile vomiting, and bukkake. 

Delightfully, Claudius (Andreas Grothgar) rampaged down to the main stage, both giving voice to and sending up the offended audience members with a long ‘I-suppose-you’d-call-this-“experimental”-this-is-not-art-Bach-is art’ rant. Klata’s iconoclasm is always textually apposite; later, for example, the gravediggers dig with upside-down crosses, pausing to mourn ’mein kreuz’, which can mean both ‘my cross’ and ‘my back’ (the English subtitles blare ‘I’ve hurt my back aCROSS’). Hamlet, ‘Hamlet, thou hast thy Father much offended’.

Books are the central motif in this production – a heartbeat into the play, a whole library tumbles clamorously onto the stage. Characters slip over them, use them as weapons. Most exquisitely, Hamlet eliminates braincells by whacking himself painfully over the head with a hardback whilst soliloquising about how he’ll erase then rewrite ‘the book and
volume of [his] brain’. 

Sandwiched between an opening lifted from Hamletmachine and Herbert’s Elegy of Fortinbras, Klata’s Hamlet handles (inter-)text delicately and precisely as a manicurist. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wiggle and pose their hands in tandem (the duo are touchingly out of fashion and in love with each other) in a way that, saying nothing, definitively conjures up Hamlet’s phrase ‘pickers and stealers’. Hamlet’s cries of existential pain fall dissonantly into rhythm with bright choral ‘aa aa aa’s’ in a version of Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb; the characters register the fact that Hamlet has been plagiarising U2 lyrics in his loveletters to Ophelia with  annoyance that many Apple users will shareresonating with reactions to the potentially mindless, stirring, impersonal banality of Hamlet’s sonnet in the 17th century text.

Unlike the all-too-common pawn-like, giggling or bewildered Gertrudes, Bettina Engelhardt is imposing as a colossal chess queen – but one of those ones in Harry Potter  who might just kill you. That, by simply drawing herself up and repeating ‘I am the Queen’, she can, hypnotically, compel Hamlet to murder Polonius in a vain attempt to please her, ever pleased/ever not-pleased, encapsulates the power in this characterisation. Xenia Snagowski’s Ophelia’s frenzied lust for Hamlet, no matter how much he rejects her, is undaunted even by him deliberately hacking and coughing grotesquely in her face. At one point he manipulates her willingness to please him in any way possible by tying her to some parallel bars in a leapfrog position – but only so he can run away. She is found, cringingly, by Polonius (Jürgen Hartmann), who of course takes advantage of such a captive audience to deliver a moralising speech.

Jan Klata's Hamlet

Jan Klata’s Hamlet

Hartmann’s Polonius, by the way, is marvellously unable to separate the roles of sports-coach and parent, blowing a football whistle to summon Laertes and finding that observing Ophelia’s ballet-practice provides each with ample with opportunities to admire the other’s musculature. When Ophelia appears, shivering tremendously in a see-through dress through which her reddened nipples are clearly visible, a black rope round her waist, it is entirely plausible that Polonius –obsessed as he is with (controlling) the minutiae of her body and her sexuality  – has dressed her like this. His whistle fails to save him when he catches Gertrude and Hamlet re-enacting the Primal Scene. Here, the situation, and Gertrude’s whorly-plaited hair, evoke the brashly ‘Freudian’ 1990 Mel Gibson movie Hamlet, which, Schaad revealed, was, alongside Branagh’s, the only film version of the play he saw for a long time. Dissatisfied by both these analogues, Schaad and Engelhardt succeed where Gibson only fell simultaneously onto his mother and into clunky crudity.

The final fight scene, initially far from violent (in one move, Hamlet simply pops his head under Laertes’ sweat-soaked T-shirt and gurns through the translucent fabric to The Four Seasons), eventually trips the production into the hypnogogic territory of Bobok as the characters tear out each other’s (or, in Gertrude’s case, her own) hearts and hold them in outstretched hands as heartbeats sound unbearably loudly in the auditorium.

This Hamlet, who infects everyone around him with his destructive madness so that, thus offloaded, he can keep a clear head, is, as Schaad proposes, easy to dislike. His disruption of Claudius’ beloved, even healthy, order and Laertes’ genuine grief is heartwrenching (both literally and metaphorically). So seamlessly, symbiotically, bardolotrous and dangerous for comfortable traditions as the festival itself, the production literally cannot be contained by the newly-built Teatr Szekspirowski. The theatre’s roof finally cracks open to reveal a starry sky, the smell of the air – ‘This night is born| a star named Hamlet’.

After which, the lady to my left, immaculate in evening dress, turns and remarks happily, ‘It was not rude. It was not vulgar. I was a bit worried having seen his previous plays. But this, this was not vulgar’.

Playing simultaneously at the Gdansk Shakespeare festival, was the Russian Shakespeare Laboratory, the result of a third year student workshop which distills the bard. Simplifying and innovating, it reduces his works down to arresting visuals: as the expensive liquor flows away, we are left with the brightly coloured silt and haggard crystals in a chemical retort. This production from St Petersburg consists of a series of little plays, for which Shakespeare’s works are often little more than a touchstone (and in which Hamlet features heavily – at one point literally so as he has a large stone strapped to his back). A man has an existential crisis when his weighing scales don’t work. Ophelia, forced to do ballet by a barking radio transmitter, eventually soaks her feet in a flower-fiilled basin, death a pleasing rest from the dance of life. For many people, Shakespeare Laboratory was one of the highlights of the Gdansk Shakespeare Festival, others boycotted it for political reasons.

Polish quotations from Shakespeare, or the names of actors or plays (or in one case, just the word ‘fate’) are projected onto the plastic curtain before the beginning of each episode. It is like (but totally unlike) the genre of Shakespearean history paintings, which The Rules stated always had to be accompanied by the correct quotation depicted within the frame.

One of these episodes, Otello, was particularly memorable. A group of men, in the dusky garments of a 20s speakeasy, rock gently back and forward in tandem on their chairs. Each pulls a white handkerchief from his clothing, caressing it in his own fashion. They dance with the handkerchiefs. One wears his as a bandana, another eats his greedily and sicks it up.  ‘I’ll have the work ta’en out’ (copied), says Michael Cassio when given Desdemona’s handkerchief; in this production, clearly, ‘the general camp, pioneers and all’ have had the work copied. The overall effect is one of dreamlike, intriguing variation. As they rock, the men engage in real flirtatious glances with whichever members of the audience catch their eyes, making the spectacle uncomfortably, affectively realised in our own reactions. Otello is a jewel in the two-and-a-bit hour performance.

Inventiveness is the foundation of Shakespeare Laboratory. I particularly enjoyed Romeo and Juliet portrayed by a handful of red and black pins, magnets roaming under the table making them brawl convincingly. A man holds his hand aloft and a red pin and a black pin hang suspended by the field of the magnet surging through his flesh and bone: clearly the pins are wistfully in love.

Yet (as here), precisely where the production was most enterprising, I also found it too reductive, un-nuanced, losing the richness of Shakespeare’s plays, which frond and feather and grow multicoloured more unpredictably than the most costly crystal tree. Lear, for example, is basically a giant flour baby who has his own red eyes picked out, no Gloucester to be seen. But this, too, is chemical, an experiment in conceptual blends. Jerzy Limon, one of the key figures behind the Gdansk Shakespeare Festival, and the Teatr Szekspirowski, has recently compared the ability of a theatrical prop to stand for two or more things at once to the term amphoterism whereby a compound can serve either as an acid or a base.

For me, the affect of this play was cumulative but a little weightless when looked at closely, a series of iconic images in quick succession like a glittering rack of test tubes filled with rainbow coloured gas.  There were some stunning moments: Ophelia pulling a jolly beach ball from a pail and throwing it away, then taking out a sodden, eyeless, balaklava, putting it over her head and twitching as she drowns,. Crumbled chalk held in the palm and blown outwards in clouds to simulate puffing on a joint. Hamlet, weighed down by a rock he voluntarily places in his rucksack, physically struggling to keep up with Gertrude and Claudius’ manic Vaudeville dance. A man slicing an onion in half and scrubbing it into his eyes (‘And if the boy have not a woman’s gift. To rain a shower of commanded tears, An onion will do well for such a shift’). Others dragged a little: one of the longest scenes involves two performers simply moving water between different vessels.

Gdansk's Teatr Szekspirowski

Gdansk’s Teatr Szekspirowski

Peter Cižmár’s Macbeth is clearly at the stage where he has forgotten how to sleep. His torrid, twitching combination of extreme tiredness and a guilty conscience makes for an unforgettable hour. This production is, interestingly, based on the self-help book The Power of Now, as well as other works by Eckhardt Tolle. ‘Thinking has become a disease’, Tolle argues, due to the fact that people repetitively, uselessly think and think without concentrating on the present moment. In this one-man show, in Slovak, Cižmár shows in its full glory, the way that a person can turn against themself as they (over)overthink the past and present. This is recognisably Shakespeare’s Macbeth, leaping over and tripping up on banks and shoals of time in a chaos of anxious vulnerability. The crown he scrumps amid the piled garbage onstage, lowered onto his head, offers him a brief few seconds of testy repose before he is back to snarling and worrying.

Endlessly inventive in his destructive self-exploration, Cižmár manufactures some arresting moments. At one point, he smashes a glass bottle, spraying the tight-packed audience (perhaps most famous for its two windows opening onto the streets of Gdansk, providing bright open-air theatre for all, Teatr w Oknie also has a cramped black studio space, and here Cižmár performed). He squeezes the glass Braveheart-style in his hands, cuts his arm, his mouth. He paints lipstick on – he has become Lady Macbeth. Later, when he smears the lipstick on his forearm, it is like a retrospective wound, of the signifying type that appear on seventeenth century murder victims when the murderer is near.

This Macbeth continues a current of questioning running throughout the pieces performed at the Gdansk Shakespeare festival. Just as Jan Klata’s Hamlet is premised on the idea that Hamlet was utterly wrong about Claudius, Cižmár asks us to consider whether Macbeth actually killed anyone at all. Is he just tormenting himself?

This effect is most sinister when it comes to the other characters. Puppeteering flattened plastic bottles and other pieces of trash, Macbeth creates, argues with, and takes out his frustration on, what he imagines to be the other characters in the play: Duncan (but there is no Duncan), Lady Macbeth (but there is no Lady Macbeth), and so on. All the while, the William Tell Overture and other popular classical pieces play in the background in muffled, almost elevator-music style.

By thus evoking these residual traces of the play , Cižmár creates a strong sense of hyperfocal distance. Cižmár’s is the only figure in sharp focus for us, but we begin to wonder whether the blurred world beyond him, to which he constantly refers, does in fact exist just out of our fingertips’ reach. Relentlessly trash, Macbeth treats the wasted plastic around him as treasure. Cižmár’s crown perhaps refers to Tollle’s parable of the beggar who sits on a battered box of riches, a metaphor for the idea that we need to look inward to the good things we possess in our souls. Whether or not Macbeth gains peace by the end of the play (when Cižmár takes off his shirt and stands panting heavily), or whether it is only the actor who is now at rest, seems similarly ungraspable.

Gone are the days (hopefully) of just extracting single characters from Shakespeare’s plays to create Flowers-from-Shakespeare style set pieces. Fringe Theatre (‘ShakespeareOFF’) is one of the pleasures of the Gdansk festival, and this year included another production featuring Čižmár, this time alongside Andrej Palko in Hamlet. Macbeth continues a powerful vein in this festival of reimagining single characters, standing alongside pieces like Tim Crouch’s I, Malvolio and Jakun Snochowski as a talk show host Hamlet on the main stage.

The 18th Gdańsk Shakespeare Festival took place between 27th September – 5th October 2014.


Laura Seymour

Laura Seymour is writing a PhD thesis on cognitive theory and Shakespeare in performance. Her poems have appeared in several journals such as 'Iota', 'Envoi', 'Ambit', and 'Magma'. Her book 'The Shark Cage' won the 2013 Cinnamon Press debut collection prize and is forthcoming in 2015.



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