Polish playwright Dorota Maslowska: interview
Time Out talks to playwright Dorota Maslowska and performer Andrea Riseborough about their plan to bring the East to the West
Vast bureaucratic treaties between nations take a while to filter down and be felt at the level of personal and cultural experience. But the expansion of the EU in 2004 has altered much more than middle-class Londoners’ access to cheap and reliable labour. When people (and money) migrate, culture goes with them. It’s timely, then, to see the Soho Theatre programming work from both sides of the new paper curtain that divides the east of Europe from the west.
Last week the Belarus Free Theatre was in residence with a Pinter double bill backed by PEN and Tom Stoppard (the pro-democratic group has been banned in its ex-Soviet homeland). Next up is Polish literary whizz-kid Dorota Maslowska, with ‘A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians’.
Maslowska is a novelist by trade and (in her homeland) by reputation. She’s still in her mid-twenties, but she’s already won the NIKE award, the Polish equivalent of the Booker. Her first play is simultaneously a road trip, a drug trip, and a trip back into Poland’s freezing interior landscape: in it, a nouveau-riche TV actor and a single mother go on a crazy joy-ride because, says Maslowska, ‘they are bored out of their minds’. It’s easy to imagine the indie movie, complete with angel dust and sunsets. But in Maslowska’s script, what you increasingly come up against is the characters’ desperate emptiness. They get high, they hitchhike, they hijack, and they use drugs and cultural stereotypes to make new, instantly disposable identities for themselves. As Maslowska is keen to emphasise, ‘The main axis of this play is poverty being treated as something exotic, a costume that can be put on. The man, Parcha, thinks that, as an actor, he can put on the make-up of a poor man and experience life as he does. You think that you can put this costume on and off at will. But it might happen that you cannot take it off.’
The intense insecurity and polarisation of wealth in Warsaw is a major inspiration for ‘A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians’. So much so that the young British actress Andrea Riseborough, who plays Parcha’s heavily pregnant sidekick Dzina, went and lived with Maslowska in Warsaw for a week to prepare the role.
Riseborough and Maslowska apparently got on like a house on fire, partly because of their similar ages and partly because of their ‘many shared cultural references, such as movies like “Natural Born Killers” '. Warsaw, with ‘harsh poverty next door to Marks & Spencer’ was not quite the ‘pure’ ex-communist country where Riseborough half expected to ‘feel alien through the absence of any commercial stimulus, or recognisable cultural landscape’.
Riseborough reckons that, though Warsaw’s been ‘the stomping ground for so many atrocities, its relationship to the country is similar to the UK’s relationship to London’: country and city are different worlds. Maslowska, too, wishes to draw attention to the new stratum of ‘semi-satisfied middle-class citizens’ who don’t see the reality of poverty. The idea expressed in the title – that Dzina and Parcha are pretending to be Polish-speaking Romanians – is, she says, ‘A joke which isn’t really so funny at all. In Poland there are no Romanians, but there are the Roma minority. It’s a symbol for a certain sort of person, a gypsy standing on the street in a long skirt.’ In the Soho’s production, that Roma minority in Poland is translated into the eastern European minority in London: ‘We have cockney accents, but with Polish soul,’ explains Riseborough, ‘and as Romanians we do bad impersonations of Romanian accents.’
Riseborough is an actress who can make herself, vocally and in other respects, unrecognisable from part to part. That quality makes her a promising casting for Maslowska’s mercurial play, which goes headlong into the characters as they lose the plot. It leaves plenty of gaps for a director to overcome. But the meat of it is in the voices, poses, fantasies and madly miscellaneous monologues. ‘The language is so satisfying: sensory; squidgy; meaty,’ says Riseborough, rolling the words round with evident relish. Hopefully, it will cross the barriers between Warsaw and London, (and from page to stage) as readily as the Polish Londoners whose presence surely inspired the Soho Theatre to seek out the play in the first place.
‘A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians’ is playing at the Soho Theatre from Feb 28.
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