The creation of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre in 2008 is one the most important events since Poland gained its freedom 25 years ago. The home of GTS is not only the first purpose-built theatre to be completed in our country in the past 40 years, it is also an example of a remarkable partnership (one might say solidarity) between local and regional authorities and a non-governmental organisation – in what we call a cultural partnership. The partnership was came about in 2008 and its founders were the Pomoroskie Voivodeship, Gdańsk City Hall and the Theatrum Gedanense Foundation.
How did a place as exceptional as the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre come to appear on the cultural map of Gdańsk? To answer the question we must look back to the year 1610, the year when, to our best knowledge, a building known as the Fencing School was completed in mediaeval Gdańsk. As well as offering fencing tuition and hosting competitions, the school hosted regular theatrical performances. Its performers included the first professional actors to work in the city. As early as 1646 the Fencing School, expanded to seat nearly 3,000, hosted Gdańsk’s first opera in honour of a visit from Polish queen Lodovica Maria Gonzaga. In 1695 Catherina Velten, widow of German actor Johannes Velten, staged ‘Nero’ by Walenty Meder at the Fencing School, the first opera written in Gdańsk. In 1741 the wooden building was dismantled and roofed and heated Komediahaus (House of Comedy) took its place the, opened to the public in 1774. Gdańsk did not have a second theatre until 25 years later. The City Theatre opened in 1801 in Targ Węglowy (Coal Market Square), the present site of Teatr Wybrzeże.
The history of the site which today is the home of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre confirms that it has been the cradle of theatre in Gdańsk and a former centre of cultural life of this rich, multicultural city. Archival materials, including maps and etchings, paint a clear picture of the wealthy theatrical tradition of Gdańsk, unequalled throughout the first Polish Republic.
The Theatrum Gedanense Foundation was established in 1991 to rebuild Gdańsk’s Elizabethan theatre. The theatre, which bore a striking resemblance to London’s Fortune Theatre, included many Elizabethan features. The architecture and interior configuration of the Fencing School were ‘Elizabethan’ as was its repertoire, performed by Englishmen. Actors from London playhouses staged plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, presenting the highest standards of acting and staging techniques commonly ascribed to the Elizabethan stage. The aim of the Foundation, continued today by the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre, was not a faithful reconstruction of the historical building of Willer’s etching, but a ‘reconstruction’ of the spirit of the place where, alongside Englishmen, theatrical companies performed from around the world.
The exterior of Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre is clearly an echo of the dominant element of historical Gdańsk: its brick gothic churches. But isn’t this supposed to be the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre? But that was a simple wooden building with no roof. What role did it play in the architect’s vision? To answer that question we need to understand that the exterior view is not the actual ‘theatre’. It is a box for a theatre. A box for a precious object, which in this case is the theatre, which is like a jewel that has been stowed inside. The box has a lid that opens (as does the roof) but its form is not a reference to the theatre from Peter Willer’s etching, but to the genesis of European theatre and the architecture of historic Gdańsk. The brick is also a reference, but its colour sets it apart, it signals that this is not a church. And so on entering we first encounter the box and only later the wooden theatre interior. We realise right away, immediately upon passing the west gate of the exterior wall, that the interior spaces are highly unconventional
In 2001 the Foundation obtained the rights to the land and commissioned archaeological excavations. The fragments of the former theatre uncovered by Dr Marcin Gawlicki in 2004 pointed the way for the design of the new building which was to occupy this historical space and gave the project a new dimension: it was to become part of the cultural heritage of the city. In 2004 an international architectural competition was announced under the patronage of culture minister Waldemar Dąbrowski. The Foundation gave the final decision to an independent, international panel of experts headed by Polish architect Stanisław Deńko. The results were announced in January 2005: the panel’s unanimous decision was that the best and most original design was that of professor Renato Rizzi of Venice.
Specialists in the history of Polish theatre see the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre as the oldest material relic of a public theatre and one of immeasurable value. The theatre symbolically rises from the foundations of its predecessor but is functionally and architecturally grounded in the 21st century.