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Fascinating cultural insights were revaled at the Shakespeare and Poland Festival gala concert for Ambulance Aid

A MEMORABLE cultural evening embracing the artistic endeavours of Ukraine and Poland, in a strictly British context, took place at Stratford Town Hall on Sunday evening.

The event – a fundraising gala described as a “Shakespeare and Poland Festival” – was enriched by some glorious singing and piano playing along with the demonstration of a fascinating link between a distinguished Polish woman and one of Stratford’s most notable institutions.

After a brief lecture by Tony Howard, Emeritus Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick, entitled A Better World Than This: Shakespeare and Poland, the London-based Ukrainian soprano Inna Husieva displayed such powerful vocal brilliance that one wondered whether she would shatter the chandeliers in the town hall’s ballroom.

And she was followed by her accompanist, Polish pianist Lukasz Krupiński, performing six works by his famous compatriot, Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), in an exhibition of truly virtuosic playing by a master of his instrument.

Ms Husieva was clad in blue and gold, the colours of Ukraine that have come to symbolise her nation’s mighty struggle against Russian aggression, and she sang three Ukrainian songs to give extra weight to the cause that was hanging so heavily over the hot and humid atmosphere in the room.

But before that the event was formally opened by Cllr Kate Rolfe, the Mayor of Stratford and Maria de Zuniga, director of the Polish Cultural Institute in London.

After their brief speeches of welcome, Prof Howard gave a 20-minute lecture focusing on the life of Josephine Calina, a Polish refugee during the First World War who eventually established an intriguing link with Stratford.

Ms Calina was born in 1890 and left home aged 14 to study music in Warsaw. But that was insufficient, so she travelled widely, lived with Ukrainian peasants and mixed with artists and radicals in Kyiv.

As a result of her radical connections she was arrested by the Tsarist police and imprisoned along with her sister and two brothers – one aged just 14. They were interrogated in appalling conditions (she witnessed stillbirths and suicides in her overcrowded cell). The boys were sent to Siberia, where one soon died. Her sister was released and Josephine was exiled.

She came to Britain, learned English, gave lectures on Dickens in Russia. She also danced. Her portrait was exhibited in Glasgow, she appeared in suffrage rallies and wrote an impassioned book about her imprisonment. It was compared to the works of the great Russian novelists and explained, according to reviewers, why the Russian Revolution was inevitable. And throughout the Great War she committed herself to fundraising for those devastated by the conflict in her homeland.

She became an “alien” of interest to the British authorities in the 1920s and was being sought by the police. But the “Russian” refugee had disappeared.

In 1923, however, shortly before she became a fugitive from the police, Oxford University published Shakespeare in Poland. Josephine Calina had written the first book in English on the subject. It told how:

  • English touring players performed cut-down versions of Shakespeare before the Polish king and around the country
  • Hamlet was first staged in Polish in the 1780s at the very moment when Poland was divided and wiped from the map
  • Shakespeare inspired Polish Romantic writers in the 19th century, dreaming or plotting or fighting for an independent Poland and overthrowing the tyrant

By this time she was also married to a young British theatre historian by the name of Allardyce Nicoll. They would edit Holinshed’s Chronicles together - the source of Shakespeare’s tumultuous Histories.

They moved to the United States, where Allardyce became head of the drama department at Yale University.

When the Second World War ended they returned to Britain, with Allardyce continuing his career as a Shakespeare scholar.

From Stratford’s point of view Allardyce and Josephine did a remarkable thing. They founded the Shakespeare Institute in the town, where Allardyce was its first director.

Josephine died in 1962 and Allardyce in 1976. Despite their fascinating and – in Josephine’s case, action-packed – lives, it is in Stratford where they made a really lasting impact. There is even a Nicoll ward at Stratford Hospital.

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