Features Essays Published 19 February 2015

Shakespeare Our Contemporary?

On the hundredth anniversary of his birth, Aleksandra Sakowska considers the impact of Polish professor Jan Kott on Shakespearean performance today.
Aleksandra Sakowska

In the late 1980s, the British section of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC) organised a conference to reassess the legacy of the then influential book, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, written by émigré Polish theatre scholar Jan Kott and published in the UK in 1964. They managed to get together a group of British and foreign theatre practitioners, Shakespearean scholars, translators and critics, including Peter Brook, Michael Billington, Michael Bogdanov, David Hare, Ian Herbert, David Thacker and John Elsom, with the latter editing a book entitled Is Shakespeare Still Our Contemporary? based on the meeting’s proceedings. In a series of panel discussions, the assorted participants asked a series of seemingly contentious questions about Shakespeare: “Does Shakespeare Translate?” “Is Shakespeare Sexist?” “Should Shakespeare be buried or born again?”

Today Kott’s work is largely forgotten, while his famous phrase “Shakespeare Our Contemporary” has become an empty signifier and a rather obvious statement: that it is necessary to adapt Shakespeare in contemporary contexts to bring him closer to modern audiences. Whereas Kott wrote from a local point of view, influenced by the historical moment in which he lived (communist Poland), today contemporariness of Shakespeare no longer seems to carry the same political or revisionist message, as the recent debate “Shakespeare – Our Contemporary?”, featuring Naomi Alderman, A S Byatt, Howard Jacobson, Alice Oswald, Mark Ravenhill and Polly Stenham, showed. The discussion reflected a distinct Anglophone approach to Shakespeare through his language, now archaic and often understood with difficulty by modern readers and spectators. 

Yet outside English–speaking cultures, most people around the globe do not have any access to Shakespeare in English on stage because most theatre productions are presented in languages other than English, while every new translation makes Shakespeare “more contemporary”. This linguistic and cultural refashioning of the “original” also explains the constant need for new translations: each generation wants its own Shakespeare who will speak the language of the time, a phenomenon which is also at the heart of theatre practice. In Poland this has been best reflected by the Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre project, a multi-million pound reconstruction of an early modern playhouse in Gdansk in the form of a modern, technologically advanced building which allows for any type of staging, without the limitations of such reconstructions as Shakespeare’s Globe in London. This dominant artistic prerogative forced the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre “reconstruction” Project to reject the historical approach of early modern replicas so popular in the UK and the USA.

At the conference “Jan Kott Our Contemporary: Contexts, Legacies, New Perspectives”, the question of Shakespeare’s contemporaneity will be dealt with from both British and international perspectives by 40 participants from the UK, Poland, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, USA, China, Hungary, Slovakia, Spain and Finland. What’s more, the conference will turn the spotlight to Kott’s legacy beyond Shakespeare: his interest in Ancient Greek drama, the Theatre of the Absurd, and modernist and existentialist drama. The largely forgotten Polish critic will also be remembered as a great spotter of new trends in theatre. After Shakespeare Our Contemporary he wrote a virtually unknown book, Gender of Rosalind, foreseeing in it that the changing attitudes to morality would result in theatrical adaptations of the classics focused on sex and body. This is a trend that has reached even contemporary Catholic Poland in the work of directors such as Maja Kleczewska – particularly the drag-queen Macbeth that she brought to the Globe to Globe festival in 2012.  

The conference aims to show that Kott’s influential criticism, which has permeated Western theatre practice since the 1960s, overshadows other voices and sets a limited context for Central and Eastern European approaches to analysing Shakespeare’s works. Thus the overall picture that may be drawn by Western audiences, introduced to Central and Eastern European Shakespeare by late twentieth-century publications in English, is that Shakespeare has merely become a weapon to fight cultural and political oppression. 

On the contrary, Song of the Goat – who will show their award-winning adaptation of King Lear as part of the conference – are in no way influenced by Kott’s writings. Song of the Goat’s director Grzegorz Bral, when asked about Kott’s legacy in his Songs of Lear, says “Kott has never been an inspiration for me. The source of my thinking about Shakespeare is music and the opportunity to touch a shared social myth thanks to a harmonising quality of the polyphony of sounds.”

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Kage where K for Kott.

Does Kott’s legacy not matter then? Yes, it does matter, certainly according to Greek performance artist Filippos Tsitsopoulos, who is showing his performance Kage where K for Kott as part of the conference. Tsitsopoulos met Kott as a child and remembers his black shirts and fondness for Greek pastries. His father, a repertory actor, was in a Brecht play next to a Greek actress Katina Paxinou, a friend of Kott. He fondly remembers that “almost every night after school I was in the theatre backstage doing my homework, watching Brecht’s play, enjoying my father’s acting, as every kid would do, every afternoon, until my mother, who usually finished work later, would come and take me home”. 

For Tsitsopoulos, his project Kage where K for Kott is a personal, Ulysses-like journey that unravels various aspects of Kott’s work by wandering around London, “sleeping on a boat by the river, approaching nearby strangers and talking with them using masks as Kott’s favorite element of his Verfremdunseffekt”. Filippos’s monologues, based on Shakespeare Our Contemporary and Theatre of Essence, are irreverent and violently expressive. He sees his performances as “interventions”, which he conducts in public spaces such as the Serpentine Gallery and Tate Modern. The forthcoming intervention at the Jan Kott conference, he says, is a response to a recent article by Michael Billington that characterises Kott as the “largely forgotten Polish professor”.

After speaking to Filippos, I begin to think that perhaps Kott’s biggest contribution is that he did not buy into biblical exegesis of Shakespeare, Shakespeare as the Bard. In an interview with Rustom Bharucha, Kott proclaimed that “we have to perform the classics in such a way that we rape them, but rape them with love […] It is a relationship built out of both violence and respect. It is a relationship where one is both friend and enemy”. His words still stand as a beacon for artists’ right to creative freedom.

However, Kott’s views and controversial statements about adapting the classics, such as the one above, largely divided theatre practitioners and scholars: the first were inspired by him while the latter were wary, which is also a distant echo of the text vs. theatre debate. According to Stanley Wells, Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary was a revolution in criticism, whereas Zdeněk Stříbrný wrote “unique Kott certainly was but not precise or scholarly in any sense of the word. His essays were marked by a number of elementary mistakes and misreading which provoked one distinguished scholar to call them ‘The Shakespearean Rag’.” Nevertheless, even if Kott can come across as yet another egotistical scholar with a dictatorial standpoint, his texts offered new readings of Shakespeare’s stories and re-confirmed that Shakespeare’s works are ever open to new interpretation. That is why the biggest impact of his writings was on theatre, because his work questioned stale ideas and opposed “antiquarianism”. 

“Shakespeare our contemporary” defines most Shakespearean adaptations in the twenty first century, including those on Polish stages, but in a simpler sense than Kott meant. While Kott saw Shakespeare’s text as a vital instrument for conveying the contemporariness of his time, mostly in a political sense that did not necessitate major revisionary interventions, Shakespeare in the new millennium is subjected to an unstoppable desire to modernise, both by seeking innovative ways of using traditional media and by using new digital technologies available to artists at a lower cost than ever. Theatre practice, driven by creativity and innovation, makes theatre practitioners want to go deeper and deeper into Shakespeare’s text in order to find new meanings and readings, sometimes relevant to the here and now and sometimes used as a springboard for their creative journeys. 

“Jan Kott Our Contemporary: Contexts, Legacies, New Perspectives” is organised by the Kingston Shakespeare Seminar Series (KiSS) in co-operation with the Polish Cultural Institute in London and Battersea Arts Centre. The conference is being held at the Rose Theatre in Kingston on 19th February 2015.

Songs of Lear is at Battersea Arts Centre 19th – 22nd February 2015.

Aleksandra Sakowska is Executive Director at British Friends of the Gdansk Theatre Trust.

Main photo: Greg Veit.

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