Light dawns in the east for Shakespeare

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The Independent Online
EASTERN EUROPE is finally paying off its debt. Not a financial one to the IMF and World Bank, but a literary one to the world's best- known playwright.

Nations such as Poland and Hungary, whose citizens translated Shakespeare into their mother tongue as an expression of cultural independence during the revolutions of the 19th century, are finding new relevance in his work as they undergo whirlwind political and economic change. In a project similar to London's Globe, the Baltic port of Gdansk even plans to reconstruct an Elizabethan-style theatre to stage Shakespeare's plays.

The birthplace of Solidarity has a long association with Shakespearean drama, and this month held a festival of his plays, attended by thousands.

"English theatre groups were coming to Gdansk to perform 200 years ago, and we know that Shakespeare plays were performed here during his lifetime. We have documents and contemporary correspondence that prove that," said Iowa Chelmowska, of the Gdansk Theatre Foundation, which is reconstructing the theatre where those visiting players once performed.

"Poles have a special affinity for Shakespeare," she said. "The first major cultural event in Poland after the war was a Shakespeare festival in Warsaw in 1947. Even though the city was ruined, people still went. Now, here in Poland we have 100 professional theatres and every year there are as many as 18 new interpretations of Shakespeare."

In keeping with the revival, the British Council last year supported the staging of A Winter's Tale at the Maly theatre in St Petersburg. "Shakespeare acts as a bridge between cultures," said Sally Cowling, head of drama and dance at the British Council. "Audiences in central Europe are very interested in classical texts and how we perform them compared to their own productions."

Perhaps more than any other region outside England, central Europe has always shown a special affinity for Shakespeare. During the 19th century, translating his works into the language of emerging nations became a test of their durability and national identity. If a country's tongue could do justice to the world's finest literature, it was considered to reinforce its claim to independence.

"During the 19th century, from Poland down to Georgia, translating Shakespeare was related to independence movements," said Zoltan Markus, a university teacher writing a book on the reception of Shakespeare in Budapest, Berlin and London during the 1930s and 1940s.

Under Communism, Shakespeare presented a dilemma for the dictators of eastern Europe. Performances of his plays were a hallmark of cultural legitimacy, showing that even one-party states allowed the arts to flourish. But in that delicate game, played ably by dissidents, the plays were also a perfect medium for transmitting hidden messages and metaphors about power and its abuse. The answer was to appropriate the Bard for the Bolshevik cause.

"Under Communism the question was not should we play Shakespeare, but how should we?" said Markus. "In the early days it was decided that he represented popular values. So Hamlet was no longer a dithering intellectual but a Socialist man of the people, fighting against tyranny. By the 1950s Shakespeare was reduced to the fight by the dark forces of feudalism and capitalism against Socialist progress. Everything had to be interpreted to fit into this."

In eastern Europe, the universalism of Shakespearean themes such as power, passion and betrayal, intrigue and treachery still have a special resonance. Especially now, in fact, in countries such as Belarus, which is languishing in international isolation under the autocratic rule of Alexander Lukashenko. When a Belarussian theatre company staged Richard III last year in Gdansk, the play's theme of an unscrupulous, dictatorial king who usurps a throne and disposes of his rivals did not need explaining to a rapt audience.

In the 1930s, Julius Caesar paralleled the purges and betrayals in Moscow. Not surprisingly, Stalin preferred the Bard's lighter works. When Stanislavsky, the great theatre director, was summoned by Stalin after a Shakespeare performance, the dictator asked his quaking subject what he was working on next. Stanislavsky let drop that he was planning a new production of Hamlet. "What for?" Stalin asked sternly, and the Prince of Denmark appeared no more on Soviet stages. In those times, a line such as "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" was explosive.

Today, Shakespearean drama is reasserting itself in less oppressive circumstances, but judging by the enthusiasm of theatre producers and audiences, its dramatic impact has not been diminished. "Now the countries of eastern Europe are back on track, Shakespeare has reverted to its classical state and has lost its political resonance. That shows its durability," said Markus.