YISF 2015: What if Shakespeare were not English? An Interview with H(2)O

William Shakespeare is undoubtedly one of the greatest figures in the English-speaking world and beyond. His works have withstood the test of time and may have even conquered it; he was, is and always will be the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) in the world of literature. However, the magic of Shakespeare is not confined by the language that carries it. Many theatre companies have tried to translate and perform Shakespeare in different languages and as the York International Shakespeare Festival has arrived, we decided to look at the Bard under a different light. This year, Teatr Strefa Otwarta of Wroclaw is joining the York International Shakespeare Festival from Poland with their H(2)O. We talk to Anna Rakowska and Piotr Misztela who are the souls of their company and this production.

Entering York Theatre Royal on a Saturday’s afternoon, Piotr and Anna were celebrating their successful first showing in York. It is their first time visiting England; although it may seem like an alien worry, but if you don’t have English firmly underneath your belt (translation: if you are not native speaker), Shakespeare can transform from a friendly buddy into a hydra at any moment. Having studied in Poland, Anna and Piotr have chosen to flirt with Shakespeare since their youth. “It started during our studies,” Piotr explained. “Back in Wroclaw, Poland. We had the best professor who is a master of Shakespeare in Poland, who also wrote some books about Shakespeare. He was really into his English style.” “Especially into the old English style.” Anna added immediately. It is one of the most magical elements of Shakespeare: his literary merits rest on his misuse of the language. To understand the old English is a challenge, but to gain the insight in order to appreciate the ways Shakespeare toys with English is a much deeper task.

If you know just a little bit of Hamlet, you can read from our behavior, our relationship…you can read everything

Photography by Greg Googale

However, Shakespeare is not a maestro simply because of his use of language; underlying his greatness is also his immense talent of being a story teller. “Language is not just the words,” Piotr pointed out neatly. “We prefer theatres that are not just full of talking, but also involve a lot of actions. Philip (Parr), the director of this festival, saw our play in Polish the first time in Gdansk during the Shakespeare Festival there. He understood everything (without knowing Polish). If you know just a little bit of Hamlet, you can read from our behavior, our relationship…you can read everything, we have to say.” To Piotr, while he admitted that some English words are important, they are merely “additional.” “Here we mix English and Polish, but you can read from our movements, our behaviour being on the stage.” “The description of our emotion of the monologues is closer to me in Polish. It is better for me to speak it, but I think that the audience may read from my eyes,” added Anna.

It reminds me of my first Shakespeare experience a couple of years ago as I watched Merchant of Venice which was staged in Cantonese. I nearly forgot I was watching Shakespeare, instead I was simply being pulled into the story, the audience gasps and laughs as the stories unfolded one after the other. Since then, the mystique of Shakespeare was shaken off. For me, it is everything that Shakespeare created in his plays; for Piotr and Anna, it is the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia that inspired their H(2)O. “H is Hamlet, and O is Ophelia. The name H2O is also the chemical symbol of water. Water has a big meaning for us in the performance, because Ophelia dies drowning in the lake.” they explained.

The communication between the audience and the actors is not confined within the wall language sometime builds; most of the time, it is down to the audience and the actors to break it down

In some ways, the duo feel their production benefits from its bilingual nature. “I think it is deeper when expressing our relationship,” Anna said. “We have a scene when Hamlet asks me something in English and I answer in Polish. For me, it is symbolic because of the ‘no-communication.’ But sometimes when I ask Hamlet something, there is no answer. So I ask again in another language.” In fact, it is exactly when they distance Shakespeare from the English language that they’re able to capture a fresh perspective on the story. The communication between the audience and the actors is not confined within the walls of language. “A lot depend on the auditorium, the audience. We played this performance for 400 people, and we played this performance for 15 people, they were totally different performances,” said Piotr. “Because it is based on our relation, we are inviting the audience into our home: we let them see how we live, and they help us to make it work better.”

A Performance of Shakespeare's Hamlet by Dan Escott

The auditorium is crucial for their performances. “We don’t like these kind of theatres sometimes, that there is no dialogue between the actors and the auditorium,” Piotr confessed. “I don’t mean only speaking to you, but if there is some connection (between actors and audience), there is this wall between and it is like watching TV, and we have to break this wall, in this performance especially.” Indeed, the theatre Anna and Piotr created, Teatr Strefa Otwarta, is translated as “Open Sphere Theatre.” To perform Shakespeare in Polish and English in front of an English audience, one will immediately understand the importance of their philosophy, and perhaps too, the daunting experience of performing the Bard in his homeland.

However, Peter thought otherwise. “I found it interesting, especially for the experts of Shakespeare. It is lovely that during this festival, Philip invited a lot of groups, and we created totally different kinds of theatre, and totally different thinking about Shakespeare as well. I found it is like a puzzle and then you can take different pieces, because I would not say that Shakespeare should be played in this room and that room. You know we are searching for something new as well, but in another way we come back to this Shakespeare tradition.”

Here (York) is perfect for acting, for performing and watching shows

What Shakespeare tradition? It is the tradition of an “Open Sphere Theatre.” Back in the old days, people would shout and scream during the performance, the audience were part of the show. Nowadays, Shakespeare is put on the throne, worshiped by us mortals for his immortality. If there is anything that the York International Shakespeare Festival succeeded at, it is their ability to understand, appreciate and interpret Shakespeare in many different global, lingual and cultural forms. Mind it to be the St Olave’s Church or the Gillygate Pub, wherever there is audience, there is Shakespeare, or rather, the values that Shakespeare represents.

“Here (York) is perfect for acting, for performing and watching shows,” remarked Anna upon leaving. While they struggled to find the silver lining of the English weather, one thing is sure: they found that uniqueness in Shakespeare in both English, Polish and beyond. “To me, he is the master, the best writer,” concluded Anna. “Hamlet is like my main book. There is everything that I have to express, to say to the audience.”

What if Shakespeare were not English? Well, we are sure he would still be the Bard we know of: the master and the best writer.

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