People crowd in front of the Shakespearean Theatre building
Gdansk - AFP
The curtain has gone up on a Shakespearean playhouse with an ultra-modern twist in Poland's port city of Gdansk, built on the very spot where four centuries ago English actors performed masterpieces by the Great Bard, albeit on a more humble stage.
The new 22-million euro ($28-million) venue, which opened this weekend with a performance of Hamlet by the world-renowned Shakespeare's Globe company, already boasts Britain's Prince Charles among its most ardent fans.
Professor Jerzy Limon, a literary scholar, is the driving force behind the Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre and the city's annual Shakespeare festival, which has been drawing audiences since 1993.
"It's a combination of a wonderful 400-year-old tradition and very modern, rather postmodern architecture," said Limon of the venue.
The "jewel box" design by Venetian architect Renato Rizzi features a dark brick neo-Gothic style exterior and a retractable roof that can swing open to the sky like a two-winged draw-bridge.
A shimmering golden-hue dominates the wooden 600-seat interior, with its three tiers of balconies.
A stage comprising 56 moveable modules is versatile enough to accommodate the quintessentially Elizabethan "thrust stage", surrounded by the audience on three sides; "theatre in the round", where the audience surrounds performers and the conventional "proscenium", with all viewers facing the stage.
The cutting-edge venue was inspired by the drawing of a 17th century Gdansk artist detailing a humble wood-panel building used in the city for fencing and theatre.
It featured an open-air courtyard, similar to London's original Globe playhouse launched by Shakespeare himself in 1599.
Prince Charles has been among the most ardent supporters of Limon's drive to revive the Shakespearean heritage of Gdansk.
In a special video address marking its weekend grand opening, the heir to the British throne deemed it "fitting" to raise the curtain 450 years after Shakespeare was born.
"There's no other theatre like it. It really exceeds expectations," Neil Constable, chief executive of Shakespeare's Globe theatre, told AFP in Gdansk.
"We're very jealous of Professor Limon's new theatre with the opening and closing roof and the opportunity to be able to perform in winter months in the way that we can't with our outdoor theatre," he said of London's Globe, a precise replica of Shakespeare's very own venue.
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Like Amsterdam, Gdansk was a bustling Hanseatic League trading port in the 15th to 17th centuries, hosting an affluent and ethnically diverse merchant class -- including Englishmen and Scots -- hungry for a good show on a night out.
Troupes of English actors began arriving on Baltic shores in the early 1600s and soon became so popular they were "followed by virgins who would travel after them from one town to the other like groupies today," Limon told AFP.
"The theatrical impact of England in that period is comparable to that of British pop and rock music in the 21st century," he added.
But in the decades after the English monarchy was restored, actors gradually abandoned the hitherto popular Gdansk as they sought fame and fortune back home, Limon explains.
The city's playhouse was finally scrapped in the 1800s to make way for new homes, and in 1945 Nazi bombs razed the area to the ground.
Located a stone's throw from the Gdansk Shipyard, the cradle of Poland's anti-communist Solidarity movement led by freedom icon Lech Walesa, the land was paved over and turned into a parking lot after the war.
Limon's dream of a new theatre harking back to the days of Shakespeare was born after Poland shed communism in 1989. European Union entry in 2004 made it come true.
Brussels footed more than half bill for the theatre with grants to the tune of 12 million euros ($15.4 million), with local and regional authorities covering the balance.
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For Poland's new Culture Minister Malgorzata Omilanowska, the Shakespearean venue is a prime example of what she terms an "unprecedented blossoming" of cultural institutions in Poland, thanks in large part to generous EU funds.
Since 2007 Poland has received 553.6 million euros in EU subsidies earmarked for culture and regional development, the Polish culture ministry said.
The nation of 38 million is slated to absorb 500 million euros more for similar purposes between 2014 and 2020.
"The sum total of all these investments in such a short time is unprecedented in Europe and in all of Polish history," Omilanowska told AFP as the curtain went up in Gdansk.
Unscripted high drama marked the debut, also attended by incoming European Union President, former Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk.
The Gdansk native -- and friend of Limon -- and several hundred other guests were forced to evacuate the building for over an hour when state security agents found a suspicious black suitcase, but it proved a false alarm.
Andrzej Wajda, Poland's Oscar-winning film director, who is also renowned for stage productions including Hamlet, was visibly moved at the venue.
"It's wonderful that in the past English actors performed here for audiences and that, after many, many years and huge political upheaval, we have a Shakespearean theatre here again -- a bigger, even better one!
"I won't at all be surprised if one evening the ghost in Hamlet appears here."