As an anonymous commenter Simon Stephens's recent Guardian's Theatre blog about German theatre recently remarked:
“The Globe season has been wonderful so far, regarding seeing international theatre, especially in seeing other theatre cultures refracted through Shakespeare, it's interesting, however, to see critics switching from the way they review a non European to a European production, the latter being seen in relation to this country's heritage rather than their own....”I've not kept up with what the other people who have been sent to see the Globe to Globe season have been saying (although I wholly endorse every word of Matt Trueman's excellent write-up of Cymbeline for the Guardian), but this point about how we watch work from other countries does seem incredibly current.
Perhaps it's just my own peculiar perspective, but I've found myself watching – or trying to watch – *all* the productions I've seen more in terms of the country that they're from and what it says about that country – and trying to work out how representative they are of its theatre culture. Inevitably, one does also wind up relating those thoughts back to comparisons with the other theatre cultures with which one is familiar.
As such, I feel vaguely able to situate this Polish Macbeth within both a national and European context since after Britain and then Germany, Poland is probably the European country with whose theatre I'm most familiar.
For me, Poland functions as an excellent bridge over the gap that exists between the theatre cultures Britain and German. My reasoning for this thinking is the way that Polish theatre seems like an almost precise mid-point or synthesis between German Brechtian and Russian Stanislavskian influences. As such, one often seems to end up with a version of Germany's Regietheater, but being acted with intensely clear psychological realism, which can make for a much easier entry point for a British audience.
There are also other influences on Polish theatre, of course. Poland is not without its own home-grown theatre practices and cultural influences, and there's also a long-established link between Poland and France, although none of these seem as relevant here. Kochanowski Theatre, Opole's 2004 production, directed by Maja Kleczewska, seems – to me – to lean more toward its German influences (although I'd not swear that I could spot Grotowski's influence if it came up to me and did whatever it would be characteristically likely to do to me).
To my mind, this Macbeth superficially most resembles the work of the German director Rene Pollesch (whose work I first encountered in Warszawa), which is to say, it is essentially a play disguised as a transvestite melodrama.
This Macbeth opens with *four* Witches – the extra one is apparently called Lola and is in love with Banquo. Macbeth and Banquo, in tracksuit bottoms and vests, are slumped in armchairs. The Witches are three men and (how to say this?) a rotund, older female actor (I think the visual quality here necessitates the description), dressed as disco dollies from the seventies – garish all-in-one catsuits with slashed backs and glittery multi-coloured afro wigs and lashings of make-up. Throughout there are bursts of dancing to disco music, lip-synched torch songs, and etc.
What's interesting, though, is that, slightly intervention-y quality aside, none of this really gets in the way of the production actually being quite *straight* when it gets down to business. The Witches and the contemporary dress don't actually alter the flow or the sense of the scenes. They liven them up a bit, but no more than, say, Patrick Stewart's business with the bread knife in Rupert Goold's Macbeth a few years ago.
Indeed, what's possibly more interesting about them in this context is the extent to which they feel a bit bolted-on, rather than integral, both to the production and the culture from which they spring. On the other hand, Kleczewska has offered some minor revisions to the text (aside from the massive revision of translating the whole thing into Polish) – or rather, slight changes to the shape of the story. Not provided with line-by-line surtitles, it's impossible to know whether Lady M. refers to the fact that she's pregnant in the new text without knowing Polish. On the other hand, moving the location and circumstances of Banquo's murder doesn't feel especially like it's altered much of significance.
The portrayal of the murder of MacDuff's children and wife includes one murderer first raping his wife. While some people might have found this a bit *unearned* by the production, and it did sit oddly with the clownish mucking around either side, I still found it one of the most powerful stagings of the scene – not so much for the violence and brutality itself, but also because of the clarity with which you see the vindictiveness of the Macbeths' decision to order the murders – although in the context Lady Macbeth's pregnancy suddenly makes a lot more sense. After all, without it, what trouble does the prophecy that Banquo's children would take over the throne after a childless Macbeth had passed away cause?
[Actually, this is a good question. If Lady M. isn't pregnant, or the Macbeths don't have children, why are they killing Banquo in the *normal* version? Or am I being thick? Quite possibly]
So, what are we left with? Well, I saw this the afternoon before Three Kingdoms, and on that score, it wasn't a bad way of getting into the right headspace for the latter show. As a production of Macbeth it felt, ultimately a bit caught between the two camps I described at the outset. Neither really using the diverse additional elements to shed any light on the production, nor achieving much of an emotional impact.
[Edit: Tony Howard has left an excellent comment under Michael Billington's review which does all the work both mine and Michael's work should have done:
"You might be interested to know that, though it's been revised and adapted for the Globe to Globe festival, this production dates orignally from 2004 and was a very precise reaction to the cultural condition of Poland in the post-communist age. Duncan became the head of a mafia network which is very close to the empire of the country's most notorious criminal , Adrzej Kolikowski (nicknamed Pershing). He was murdered by his enemies in 1999 while on holiday (in Zakopane, not Dunsinane) after a violent career that involved 'investments' in drugs and nightclubs. He was, in fact, called the man behind 'diso-polo', a ghastly music trend which began in rancid rural dance halls and clubs like the environment in the Macbeth production.
That's not all - the first drag queens appeared in Poland months beforew the production, and inspired a wave of hysterical condemnation from the Church and anxious debates about the destruction of 'true' masculinity. Startlingly, the travsvestite witches at the Globe are VICTIMS of the brutal society, rather than demons or forces of fate. (Though we here them miming to 'I will survive' while the macho urban provinical warriors massacre each other.) The production was widely praised in Poland at the time and has become, as the Opole theatre's Artistic Director joked yesterday, 'classical' now."]