Good Fortune: 50 years of the New Fortune Theatre

On September 19 to 21 Bob White (CI) and Penelope Woods (Research Associate, UWA) attended the  spectacular opening of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre (Gdański Teatr Szekspirowski) in the Old Town of Gdańsk in Poland. On behalf of the Centre for the History of Emotions and UWA’s New Fortune Theatre, they made a presentation on the historic occasion to Professor Jerzy Limon, the distinguished Shakespeare scholar who more or less single-handedly raised the money to build the theatre. The opening was hailed by the European press as ‘one of the most important events since Poland gained its freedom 25 years ago’.

Reconstruction of the theatre based on the builder’s contract, drawn by W. H. Godfrey in 1907. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The spectacular building, costing some £18 million to construct, contains within it a recreation of the Elizabethan playhouse, the Fortune Theatre (1600), which is the prototype for UWA’s faithful reconstruction, the New Fortune Theatre, itself celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2014.

The Gdańsk theatre is built on or near the site of the seventeenth century Fencing School, an unroofed, galleried building used for fencing classes, bear baiting, and by visiting English actors in Shakespeare’s time. Dark Belgian brick on the windowless outer walls gives intimidating bulk against the skyline, while the interior is pale cream and light, constructed from Bulgarian marble and Polish birch. An engineering and architectural marvel, the theatre can be transfigured in many different ways, and there is a spectacular 90-tonne retractable roof that opens in three minutes to allow for daylight performances in good weather. The building was three-quarters funded largely by the European community, topped up by corporate sponsors and local authorities.

The opening attracted about 3,000 spectators outside, who watched an astonishing sound and light display around the ramparts and roof, while inside royalty and corporate magnates were regaled with speeches.

On the day following the opening there was a performance of Hamlet by the Globe Theatre, the 43rd stop on the ‘Globe to Globe’ tour of the play to every country in the world. The company will reach Australia in June 2015. On the following night, Bob attended the acclaimed one-man performance by Tim Crouch in ‘I Malvolio’.

Bob White and Penelope Woods
Bob White and Penelope Woods at the opening of the Gdański Teatr, showing pictures of the New Fortune Theatre at UWA.

Later in the month, the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre hosted the city’s 18th Shakespeare Festival, which has so far staged more than 200 different subtitled productions from 40-plus countries. Both the Gdański Teatr Szekspirowski and the Globe are part of the important European Shakespeare Festivals Network, which includes other reconstructed theatres and also ‘Hamlet’s Castle’ in Elsinore, Denmark.

Our Australian New Fortune Theatre is internationally hailed and coveted by theatre historians as one of the earliest and most important of such reconstructions. Built from the dimensions given in the Fortune Playhouse contract of 1600, the New Fortune Theatre at UWA offers an accuracy of dimension and layout that the reconstructions of the Blackfriars Theatre in Staunton, VA or the Globe Theatre in London cannot, since the contracts for these buildings did not survive. With the erosion over some years of the drama and theatre studies staffing at the University of Western Australia, and the current trend for the monetization of University spaces, this asset is currently underutilized and undervalued.

CHE, together with the Graduate Drama Society (GRADS) and the Faculty of Arts at UWA, however, have been working hard to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the New Fortune (and Shakespeare’s 450th birthday) and to raise its profile at UWA and Australia. We organized an historic collaboratory in 2011, ‘Performing Old Emotions on the New Fortune Stage’, which involved the world’s most important theatre historians who had themselves been involved in reconstructions, material and digital. This was followed in 2012 by the international conference, Shakespeare and Emotions’, as a collaboration between CHE and the Australian and New Zealand Shakespeare Association and the arrival of the internationally acclaimed Two Gents Production Company from London via Harare (or vice versa) in February 2013 to perform The Two Gentleman of Verona  and Kupenga Kwa Hamlet. These performances were accompanied by a special re-performance by Perth’s celebrated Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company of the five sonnets they translated in Noongar and performed at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2012.

On 29 January 2014, the fiftieth anniversary of the day of the very first performance in 1964 of Hamlet, an official ceremony celebrated the occasion, and was followed by a full season of Hamlet by GRADS. Pen and Bob, with Steve Chinna, taught an honours course in first semester on “Fortune Theatres Old and New” in which Merridee Bailey (Adelaide) participated as a distinguished visitor. Pen raised funds through the UWA Arts Faculty, Cultural Precinct and CHE to build a ‘tiring house’ on the stage which has since been used for various theatre research experiments, and Steve has recently directed a spectacular ‘chopped’ version of Titus Andronicus.

On 14 November the celebrated director Aarne Neeme delivered the Second New Fortune Lecture-Performance (the Inaugural one was given by John Bell). His title, ‘Fortune Tellers: Shakespeare and Dorothy Hewett’ recalls his own productions over thirty years, and valorizes Hewett, a former member of staff in English at UWA, whose plays are powerful, spectacular and unjustly neglected.  Enjoy a video recording of the 50th Anniversary lecture/performance here.

In these and other ways, we are trying to persuade the University that the New Fortune is as historically significant and worthy of investment as ‘Shakespeare’s Globe’ and ‘Gdański Teatr Szekspirowski’. It is not only a priceless heritage site, ideal for diverse community involvement, but also remarkable in its unused potential as a thriving theatre space for Elizabethan and contemporary, experimental, Australian, and Asian drama; as well as being ideal for teaching and researching the theatrical dynamics and emotions of early drama on a faithfully reconstructed stage.

by Chief Investigator Bob White.

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