The idea of having an Elizabethan-style theatre built in Gdańsk did not come out of the blue. The sixteenth and the seveteenth centuries mark the peak in the city’s cultural history, when Gdańsk had become the largest harbour and town on the Baltic. In this period, we witness the appearance of English professional actors who from around 1600 until 1660 come to Gdańsk almost every summer, bringing plays which were the highest achievements of dramatic poetry, bringing superb productions, enriched with their mastery of acting, with beautiful music and dances.
Thus, during Shakespeare’s own lifetime his plays were performed in Gdańsk. Following the first visits of these out-standing players, a public theatre was built, known as the Fencing-School (being a multipurpose building), which in fact was the first public theatre in the whole of Poland, a playhouse strikingly similar to the London Fortune play-house.
First mentioned in the records in 1611, the theatre remained the city’s only permanent playhouse for well over a hundred years. Being a wooden structure it underwent numerous repairs, renovations and reconstructions. It was built anew in 1635, and this version, designed by a Flemish architect, Jakob van den Blocke, may be seen on the engraving by Peter Willer, dated c. 1650.
It seems natural then, that all of this gave rise to the idea of having this theatre reconstructed and of reviving the tradition of English actors’ visits to Gdańsk. Thus, in 1991, a group of enthusiasts started the Theatrum Gedanense Foundation. It was extremely fortunate that H.R.H. The Prince of Wales kindly agreed to become the Patron of the whole enterprise at its early phase; world-famous film and theatre directors, Sir Peter Hall and Andrzej Wajda, are the Honorary Patrons. The reconstruction of the theatre was not the goal in itself: following the Royal visit of the Foundation’s Patron, H.R.H. The Prince of Wales, in 1993 the tradition of English actors’ visits to Gdańsk was revived. In 1997 this was transformed into a festival, and it has become an important international event.
In January 2005, the jury of the international architectural competition, of which Andrzej Wajda was a member, announced its decision: the winning design was the one by Renato Rizzi, an Italian architect from Venice. Renato Rizzi has taken an approach different from other reconstructions around the world: the theatre presents itself as a (post)modern creation, which does not pretend to be ancient, yet has the ability to reflect the past and comment on it. For many reasons this is an extraordinary building. Due to the support of European Union, the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, City of Gdańsk and Pomorskie Regional Government the construction started in 2011 and was completed in September 2014.
Three types of stages have been included: the thrust stage, the box stage and the theatre-in-the-round. Thanks to modern technology, it is possible to draw aside the Elizabethan tiring-house façade, opening a space that makes the changes of scenery possible. The Elizabethan platform stage “sinks” into the ground, making thus possible for the rows of seats to be placed in the yard. Moreover, the entire ground level can become a flat surface, or it can be adjusted for the theatre-in-the-round.
The opening roof is yet another technical wonder: it takes only three minutes to open, in spite of its size (420 square meters) and weight (over 90 tons!), and makes performances at daylight possible, recalling a renaissance practice.
Thus, the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre originates in a long tradition, and at the same time makes use of the 21stC technology. It evokes past centuries, and at the same time “speaks” in the language of the present era and present aesthetics.