On October 13th, the first day of this year’s festival, the Polish ambassador will join us at Somerset House for the opening of the Theatre of Two Times exhibition, which charts the extraordinary history of an Elizabethan-style Polish playhouse from its beginnings in 17th century Gdansk to its renaissance in the present day.
It bears witness to the transformation of the Gdansk ‘Fencing School,’ where English travelling troupes staged early modern English drama, into its 21stcentury modern reconstruction: the Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre, which will open its doors in 2014.
The first theatre in Poland was built sometime between 1600 and 1612 on the river Motlava, in the multicultural city of Gdansk. It is said to be ‘reminiscent of and perhaps modelled’ on the Elizabethan theatre, Fortune, as Dutch artist Peter Willer’s engraving of the second half of the 17th century shows. According to Jerzy Limon, Professor of Humanities at the University of Gdansk, the original building application to the city authorities described the structure as a “Fencing-School” where, “apart from fencing exercises, other performances…would also take place.”
From the 17th century description of one Jean Le Labourer, the Queen of Poland’s courtier, we know that Gdansk theatre, just like Shakespeare’s Globe, “a wooden structure, with several galleries for spectators… some of whom stood in the yard, around the stage.” Remarkably, he also estimates the number of spectators at 3000, the same number as recorded by de Witt when he visited The Swan in 1595, and by the Spanish ambassador on attending the Second Globe in 1624.
In fact, Gdansk in the first half of the 17th century was one of the largest English colonies on the continent and home – according to Limon – to almost a thousand expatriates. (Nowadays of course many Polish people make their way to England, but history is a great equalizer!). The London theatres were likely known to at least some of the members of that community, and so the Gdansk theatre arose under familiar conditions and with an English contribution in one way or another.
Fittingly, then, Italian architect Renato Rizzi has envisioned the new Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre as a multifunctional building, alluding to the Elizabethan theatre tradition but also a contemporary centre for culture in Gdansk, a bridge closely connecting history and modern times. Thus the theatre’s form will not become prematurely and dramatically anachronistic, but will age gradually and naturally together with the city. It will engage with the past and look into the future; not a monument or a piece of reconstructed heritage, it will become a living theatre open not only to ideas from all forms of theatre but also all forms of culture from around the world.
The Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre project, and the Theatre of Two Times exhibition which tells its story, have a particular resonance for King’s in the context of an ongoing research project called ‘Engineering Spectacle: Inigo Jones Past & Present Performance at Somerset House,’ led by Professor Alan Read with the support of a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship. Jones, a celebrated architect, engineer and impresario of spectacle, served as Surveyor to the King’s Works and between 1615 and 1642 he transformed the first Somerset House into a centre for the celebration and conduct of politics through the power of performance, the arts of design, and the rhetorics of public display. The Inigo Rooms, the new King’s exhibition space named in Jones’ honour within the East Wing of Somerset House, will play host to the Theatre of Two Times exhibition throughout the festival.
The Theatre of Two Times exhibition, in collaboration with the Polish Cultural Institute, runs from 15 – 27 October 2012 at the Inigo Rooms in Somerset House’s East Wing. For more information about the exhibition, and to book a free guided tour visit the King’s College London website.